Is There a “Self” Left to Talk About? A Reply to Ash P. Morgans

Ash P. Morgans has a lengthy critique of the contributions made by a number of “moralists,” including myself. And in reading their response I realized that what I thought I had written—a relatively short piece with a narrow-focus—was, in fact, a confused mess. This doesn’t mean I now disagree with my arguments: I still think they hold up to scrutiny. What it means, though, is that Morgans’ critique highlights that I had presented my ideas poorly. The poor presentation can be traced to two issues:: the first, which Morgans mentions, is that I open with some praise to two authors who were specifically building off the works of Ayn Rand and Max Stirner, when my target was somewhat different. I mentioned them only to point out the intentions of their arguments (that morality is compatible with self-interest) and that they both assume that you can easily distinguish between individuals, but I should’ve been more explicit in showing how I was breaking off into a different notion of egoism. The second cause of confusion comes from these two sentences towards the end that muddle probably just about everything: 

Personally, I have no problem with [the idea that complexity forces us to conclude that if we act against other’s interests, we act against our own interests] — indeed, I endorse it wholeheartedly. But it’s a line of thought that deserves its own essay; it’ll likely be one far longer than this essay, too.”

The effect of this lack of clarity on my part is that Morgans and I end up talking past each other to a significant extent. What was supposed to be a throwaway line about how underdeveloped this second theme of my piece was ends up, I think, causing significant harm to the whole project. And so I thank Morgans for their response, since their argument was incisive and motivated me to make up for the unclear way in which I present my line of thinking originally.

My response isn’t particularly tightly structured, nor is it a point-by-point refutation of Morgans’ arguments. In fact, I think Morgans and I might very well hold some similar positions despite coming at this question from different frameworks. This response is mostly an attempt at clarification and then asking some questions that I won’t pretend to have any definitive answers on at this junction. I’ll start by clarifying the driving force behind my original piece, then move onto a discussion of the “self” in relation to complexity theory and complex adaptive systems, and then finish off with the questions-but-no-answers section, with a specific focus on the question posed in the title of this response: after all is said and done, is there even a “self” that we can refer to?  

Thin Rationality and Selfishness

With that said, I’ll start by clarifying something that, were it not for the word-choices of the above sentence and my choice of starting-points of the original piece, I think would’ve been clearer: the position I was outlining vis-à-vis rationality and self-interest wasn’t one I actually endorse. My argument was entirely strategic: I tried to take some starting assumptions that I see as defining the idea that rationality has nothing to say about whether you should care about other people and show that, under realistic conditions (i.e., conditions in a complex adaptive system), this conclusion doesn’t follow from initial premises. Those starting assumptions were, again, that rationality is only a thin, “merely instrumental” type of rationality (essentially, all that rationality is concerned with is if your means line up with your ends) and that there’s a clear difference between one “self” and another “self.” My comment about endorsing any line of reasoning was referring only to the idea that complexity might cause any notion of the “self” to disappear; it was not an endorsement of the starting assumptions that dealt with thin, instrumental rationality and selfishness.1  

In that sense, Morgan is absolutely right to say that I only end up challenging “Homo Economicus,” because that’s the only thing I was going after. My target and aims were highly limited, both because in common discourse this is the sort of egoism that’s typically trot out and also because I’m not particularly confident in my understanding of Stirner, Rand, or egoist flavours of anarchism in general. But as I said towards the end of my original piece, I think this thin, “merely instrumental” version of rationality reaches its breaking point after even a minimal amount of prodding (again, the same goes for the notion of the “self,” but I’ll get to that in a second). 

In saying all this, I’m not saying that Morgans misunderstood me, because as noted above, I think I bear the brunt of any confusion. Since my target was significantly less ambitious than Stirner, I should’ve clarified that my target was, indeed, significantly less ambitious than Stirner or egoist anarchists; or at the very least I should’ve said more than just “I’d like to take a slightly different route.” So that’s my bad. Given all that, I hope that this follow-up isn’t interpreted as a motte-and-baily style retreat to less contentious grounds. While I think my original piece provides enough textual evidence to support my limited aims were it not for those accursed sentences highlighted above, I still understand where the confusion arises, and I lay that entirely at my own feet. 

But my argument was still a purely strategic one, rather than a detailed outline of my own thoughts. And in that sense, Morgans’ point about how I place them “in an awkward position: if I challenge his morality, then I’m challenging anarchy” is more or less right on the money. The only thing is that I wasn’t explicitly attempting to put their kind of egoism in an awkward position. I was challenging people who think that rationality has nothing to say about caring for others into a position where they couldn’t deny morality without denying rationality—even a thin, “merely instrumental” version of it. It also just so happens that this sort of morality lines up with the ways in which anarchists think they ought to act towards others, and so in a sense denying morality would be like denying anarchy. However, insofar as the egoists I had in mind even bother to call themselves “anarchists,” I’d argue (and I think Morgans would agree) that they’re ultimately anarchists in name only. Egoists like Morgans aren’t forced into a similar position by this argument, something that, again, I should have clarified in my original piece. 

Complexity and the “self”

Where I did claim to endorse the line of argumentation I was pursuing was in the final section, where I argued that the nature of complex adaptive systems might render the notion of distinct selves—and thus egoism—incoherent. It was, as I admitted in my original piece, a very underdeveloped argument that I only hoped to sketch out. Even here, though, I think some lack of clarity (again, pretty much entirely on my part) rears its obfuscating head.   

My comments on what complex adaptive systems imply for the nature of the self was that being a complex adaptive system embedded within yet further complex adaptive systems collapses the distinction between “selves.” Therefore, my argument was that egoism would become incoherent, because there is no distinction to be had. More specifically, I wrote that: 

If individuals themselves don’t necessarily know what their own interests are a priori, and that’s partially because your own interests will be shaped by others as you interact with them, we start inviting questions about whether the notion of a “self” is in anyway coherent — if, in other words, it makes any sense to say that I’m a completely separate being from Wayne Gretzky. If the boundaries of the self are inherently fuzzy, then the very concept of “egoism” becomes incoherent. We’re in a situation where acting against the interests of others is identical to acting against your own interests; whilst, conversely, acting for the benefit of others is identical to acting in your own benefit.

Morgans, by contrast, takes me to task for this, first by critiquing the way I reify the notion of “interests”:  

Who are these others? Are they my fellow human beings? And do we thus share a human interest? A class interest? Kemle seems to argue our complexity implies some common interest, but this doesn‘t actually clarify anything as regards the (concrete) contradictory systems we find ourselves embedded in. Surely I, as a good, upstanding Anarchist, wouldn’t act in the interests of the oppressors, and Kemle seems to agree; as he puts it, “the nature of CAS means that any agent that seeks to create a highly rigid social system will be actively restricting their ability to accomplish their goals.” But this raises more questions than it answers! Kemle seems to assume that domination occurs due to the machinations of powerful individual agents and so, like those agents, his understanding of domination becomes equally abstract. As a result, he doesn’t actually get that far in either articulating anarchy or challenging egoism on its own turf as set himself up to try.

Morgans then argues that I haven’t, in the slightest, shown that egoism becomes incoherent:

Seeing “others” as a part of myself leads me to acknowledge only that my interests interact with theirs in dynamic, mutually-catalyzing ways. If my borders with these others are blurry, it means only that I am larger – greater – than I had previously realized, but I am no more my others than I am my arm. They are a part of me and structure me, but they are not me in my entirety (in the way that Kemle treats them). It does not follow from Kemle’s premise that I or my interests are wholly indistinguishable from my others; neither can we conclude what my interests ‘ought’ to be anymore than we can declare the nonexistence of my egoism. Quite the opposite! We can only articulate a potential interest of mine, we can only lay the groundwork for a new self-exploration. But even acknowledging that, I do not express the interests of others but rather – as my interests are not predetermined or exclusive to me – of myself more fully.

I don’t think I actually claim in my original piece that other people are “me in my entirety.” I make the much more modest claim that it’s impossible to say that someone else is completely separate from me, which I think Morgans also endorses (indeed, I think we can see some parallels with their point about how others are a part of you and structure you and my point that a person’s preferences are often constructed through interactions with others, rather than being wholly given a priori). The rest of my argument then turns on the idea that, to use the language of economics, one person’s utility function is intimately connected with another person’s utility function; consequently, if you want to act in such a way that you maximize your own utility, you need to be acting in such a way that you take other people’s utility functions into account as well. In that sense, it indeed doesn’t follow from my arguments that we have to treat each person’s interests as being identical, that there’s some reified social body whose interests we all work towards, or that the only form of social interactions are the formation of shared interests rather than a much more diverse and dynamic set of mutual effects, but that’s not what I’m arguing. I’m merely stating that if selves aren’t completely indistinguishable, then truly self-interested behaviour must innately involve caring about others.

The main focus of this section was still largely on the narrow self-interest of Homo Economicus: egoism as being equivalent to pure selfishness. It’s a notion of egoist that Morgans and other egoists have taken pains to point out is not the egoism of egoist anarchists or those that build from Stirner’s ideas, but it is the kind of egoism that’s frequently endorsed by dominators, reactionaries, and all sorts of oppressors. Hence why I wanted to, again, show all the ways that you could accept the premises of someone arguing that selfishness is the only justifiable way to live and yet come to a conclusion that, to me, seemed identical to morality: taking other people’s interests into account when you act. 

My response isn’t intended to simply state that there was a misunderstanding, though, and then leave it at that. Morgans argues that my treatment of complexity obscures the truly radical nature of dynamic social interactions and the mutual dissolution of “others” into ourselves. When people interact, Morgans argues, they become greater than they previously realized when they see their true interconnected self. People’s interests do interact in mutually-catalyzing ways that aren’t merely additive but something far more transformative. And we should realize that social relations aren’t outside of us but are us, that it doesn’t make sense to speak of “me” without also speaking of the multitude of relations with others of which I am a part. Morgans takes me to task for not conceptualizing egoism in the way that a lot of egoist anarchists do, and they’re right to say that since my focus is on egoism when it’s equated as pure selfishness. The thing is, the egoism they describe is a notion of selves that I think is accurate and, true to their words, far more radical than the talk of simple shared interests can reveal. 

I’m just not sure there’s much of a “self” left to talk about after these dynamic interactions are taken into account. 

A note before moving onto the next section: I’m not saying that Morgans should have realized I’m sympathetic to their radical treatment of complexity. That would be incredibly disingenuous of me since I only wrote a paragraph on the idea of the distinction between “selves” breaking down and then said, basically, “it’s underdeveloped sure, but whaddya want from me?” If anyone wants to accuse me of moving the goalposts, I say this: I’m not denying that Morgans is on to something, all I’m saying is that I like their radical treatment of complexity and had I developed that paragraph further, I’d like to think I would have said similar things to what Morgans did. My claim here, which will carry on into the last section, is that I’m not sure talk of “selves” as we commonly understand them can exist in light of the radical nature of complexity that Morgans discusses. 

And in that sense, I can’t help but wonder if “egoism” faces a similar dilemma.        

Is there any “self” left to talk about?

I may have entirely misunderstood or misinterpreted Morgans’ arguments. And even then, Morgans might take umbrage at the number of times I used phrases like “must,” or similar moralistic terms that imply a particular duty. In both this response and my original piece, I took care to only speak of “oughts” as involving questions of logical consistency, arguing that even with such a limited notion of “ought” and some starting assumptions that are usually seen to favour selfishness over caring for others, someone being logically consistent would find themselves choosing not selfishness but actions that are typically seen as altruistic. I don’t think egoists would object to “oughts” derived that way, but I leave that discussion for a different day (and when I’ve been better able to read up on interpretations of Stirner and how egoist anarchists treat “oughts” more broadly).2 

But the more fundamental disagreement between myself and Morgans is likely that, again, I don’t think there’s much reason to speak of “selves” as anything more than an inaccurate and limiting abstraction. Morgans I think correctly points out multiple times how abstractions can be a hindrance to any liberatory reflection or actions. Indeed, they go so far as to (rightly, I think) point out how language use can invite authority into our conversations with harmful results. But if the word “self” carries with it some expectation of atomism—of being disconnected and separate from others—then is it a word worth using in light of everything that’s been said? Is it a word worth using in light of the threats and harm that Morgans discusses? I’d argue that, in common parlance at least, the term “Unique” typically emphasizes rather clear-cut separations of one thing from another; an emphasis on distinguishing all the ways “you” differ from “others.” Egoists may not use that term in that way (and I fully admit ignorance on this), but I can’t help but wonder if a different term ought to be used to better communicate the importance of the individual without so much metaphysical baggage. Are we really using the right term? Have we chosen “Unique” only because it doesn’t seem to collapse the individual into the homogenous mass of “society,” the “community,” or other totalizing entities? Is that worth the price of conceptual clarity when, again, in common parlance, “Unique” seems to imply the very same notions of atomism that the word “self” does, and consequently all the problems associated with that atomism? If the answer to any of these questions is, “these words do more harm than good,” or perhaps more specifically, “these words restrict freedom and the radicalism of complexity,” then what room is there for a word like “egoism?” What are we attempting to describe if we call ourselves an “egoist?”

Despite the fact that the title of this section shares a name with the title of this entire response, I won’t pretend to have an answer. All I have are further questions. When Morgans says that “[i]t’s not that my interests are isolated from others because we are not the same, but rather that my interests erupt from them – rest always in relation to them – because they are my own!” I don’t see much justification for that last bit given what was argued before. Similarly, if “I” consume my myriad of relations so that I dissolve them and they dissolve me, are we talking about any entity or process of an entity forming, changing, evolving, what-have-you that actually maps onto the notion of “I”? Consider Morgans’ response to myself and another author:

It is my taking of the air and water, of my others, of the world, that I am. Pierce is correct when he argues that we “can shape our changing selves and we can shape our changing world,” that we can strive beyond “the narrow confines of our human egos.” But what he, like Kemle, seems to miss is that through this only the “ego” – that phrase, that self-conception – is lost, while I am expanded! His wonder for what lies beyond our “narrow confines” finds its conclusion in my creative nothing. In it, I spill out of my narrow self into my wider self, my property. I melt into the clouds, pour into the rivers; in every blade of grass I see only my self that I consume (enjoy, experience).

We verge on a richer, more concrete integration with the world when we see the world as our own. But like our own anarchism or sociality, a thoroughly ecological ownness might seem unnerving, if not downright uncomfortable. We are not talking of a hierarchical reverence for the world. Rather, we would be learning and exploring the world as a part of ourselves, taking in its beauty as something enjoyed (used).

If “I” melt into the clouds, pour into the rivers, and see throughout the whole world my self such that “I” am expanded, its hard not to think that the very notion of “I” loses every meaning that the word has carried for likely its entire existence. Or if nothing else, it seems as though we have to be at pains to ensure that when we use “I” to refer to ourselves, we’re not limiting its referent to some temporally, spatially, and perspectival subject, but rather a whole expanse of shifting relations. Which is perfectly fine by me! But should we not instead look for new ways of describing existence that don’t come pre-packaged with atomistic assumptions and implications? 

Again, I won’t pretend to have an answer, though it’s worth pointing out that similar questions are asked of mental states—are they helpful in describing mental life or harmful?—and it’s worth taking these questions seriously.3 Morgans’ critiques of abstractions and their critique of my definitional looseness in some places would, I think, place them in the category of people who say that any description of the world that’s fundamentally incompatible with or actively ignores who people really are is a harmful description. But if words like “I” or “ego” do exactly that—if they carry with them assumptions or implications that go against what it’s actually like to be an existing being in the world—then maybe we should seriously consider dropping those words from our vocabulary too. 

Would that end up rendering even the egoist anarchist’s version of egoism incoherent, alongside the egoism that focuses only on selfishness? And if it does render egoism incoherent, then have we made morality an inescapable presence in life? Or a necessary condition of freedom and understanding? Again, I won’t pretend to be able to answer that—not at this stage. If morality becomes an inescapable presence in life because egoism—even of a Stirnerite variety—becomes incoherent, it’s probably through entirely negative means, in the sense that if egoism isn’t a cognitively meaningful word then egoist rejections of morality can’t even get off the ground. But this is all speculation on my part because, as I said, I won’t pretend to have any answers.

Ultimately, I thank Morgans for their response, and I hope I was able to clarify a few things. If not, well, in my defense, it’s not like any of these discussions are simple. So much inquiry is stopped before it even gets started because participants in a discussion can’t understand each other or recognize the definitions being used.

I can understand why math is so often called the universal language.


[1] Morgans argues that attempting to classify anything that doesn’t operate according to a particular pre-defined system as irrational a “reactionary” standpoint. As I said, I don’t endorse the assumptions that this argument dealt with, and so I’d hope that would excuse me from the label of “reactionary.” But this is an interesting line of argumentation, in that Morgans seems to argue that since phrase-making implies authority, phrase-making is reactionary in nature. I’m not sure I follow this argument fully, but I think it’s certainly correct to note that the way in which language is deployed can greatly impact a person’s ability to live their life—and that would include the use of words like “rational” and “irrational” as well. 

[2] Morgans argues that my description aims to denigrate those social actions which rest outside of its criteria of rationalism, his method assumes the creation of fixed descriptions that we must adhere to — i.e., it entails phrase-making and so, authority. Likewise, that he is attacking the “immoral” means there are people who simply aren’t acting the way his description claims they ought to be. If, in his own paradigm, people are acting irrationally, then it is Kemle who is wrong, Kemle’s description which has failed to describe reality. It doesn’t really get us very far in analyzing society when all we do with our analysis is label society as “bad.” If, in Kemle’s model, the dominant mode of social organization today is labeled as wholly irrational, does that not force us to question his assumption of rationality in the first place? If, in our social model, we assume that people are rational and they act irrationally, either we remove the assumption of rationality (and morality with it), or, we remove the model (and morality remains indefensible).

I’m not sure how this argument works even in the context of “rationality” being defined in a thin, “merely instrumental” fashion. My starting assumption was that it’s rational—that is, the means are consistent with the ends—for a selfish person to work towards the interests of others if they want to maximize their utility, but that’s a normative statement, not an ontological one. People can act “irrationally” as much as they want without that necessarily undermining the normative thrust of saying that you should act in Y way if you value X, because normative statements don’t need to be followed by everyone for them to be correct.

This is why I say I need to read up more on egoist anarchist literature before I can even start to claim to answer some of the questions raised in this section. I feel like, in this particular response, I’m missing something. 

[3] “Eliminative materialists” like the Churchlands and Daniel Dennett argue that folk psychology and words like “belief” or “qualia” are harmful to understanding what a mind is, while Jerry Fodor would be an example of someone who defends folk psychology as being useful for understanding the mind. That a number of philosophers refuse to take the eliminative materialists seriously I think shows just how entrenched our definitions of things can get, which I think pairs nicely with our discussion here.

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