Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Philosophy of Selfishness and Metaphysical Ethics” (1891)

The Philosophy of Selfishness and Metaphysical Ethics

In No. 197 of The Open Court appeared a criticism of the egoistic conception of life from the pen of Mr. Salter in which I was deeply interested. Interested because I believe that as one of the leaders of the ethical movement Mr. Slater is aware that there is no more frequent or more fatal error to overcome, in his work, than this very philosophy of selfishness, and therefore should be one of those best conversant with the proofs of its shallowness and falsity.

It is plain that the increasing interest in the ethical problem is evidence of the unrest which sits upon Humanity in the presence of the destruction of its temple. Science has torn the veil from the tabernacle of Fear; Man has looked within, and the space he imagined filled with terrible ghosts is seen to be empty. Only the darkness kept him from knowing it: now there is light – light everywhere, and he no longer accepts the moral code “obey.” Yet knowing this, in the face of the death of God, he finds himself only at the statement of the problem. The symbols and the forms of religion, the vestments of priests, have become only mockeries, signs of the crude worship of a half savage imagination. And still, bound up in them, was a something that was true; something of which he dares not let go, something that had served to guide his actions, and give meaning to life. This was the ethical problem; to undress the truth and leave it nude, white, shining, a luminous point moving before Man into the infinite – the future: to explain what good it was, that, wrapped in the dogmas of the Church, nevertheless bound men together and served to lift the race slowly upward.

It is at this questioning point that radical freethought has too often made its mistake. It falls into one of two errors; and the most grievous, I believe, is this of making self the centre and circumference of all consideration. The most brilliant of American orators, the idol of freethought, has been so mistaken, and all his writings are permeated with the “happiness philosophy.” Grieved and disgusted with a world which “for love of Love has slain love” he has conceived that the way to improve matters is to cease urging the necessity of goodness, and insist that people shall be happy (his conclusion being that a happy man is a good man). The same teaching, variously expressed by the most trenchant pens, is to be found throughout the radical press. It says, practically: “the universe is purposeless; man’s actions are accountable to no one. Therefore let him be happy. Let him study to discover what line of conduct will increase the sum of his agreeable sensations, and follow it. The desire for such increase is the motive to all action, whether of the barbarian or the civilised man; the only difference being that the civilised man has wider knowledge and a greater number of emotions.”

It was the fundamental error of this reasoning which I had hoped Mr. Slater would have pointed out. Unfortunately he falls into the other mistake, the substance of his article being comprised in the old, metaphysical formula: “Do right because it is right.” People “desire certain things or objects, and while the getting of them gives us pleasure, it is not so much the pleasure, as the things we want.” This is an explanation which does not explain. He is right in saying that “the getting of them gives us pleasure”; pleasure is the result of action not its cause. But to substitute for the assertion “I save a man’s life because it gives me pleasure,” “I save a man’s life because I want him to have his life” is to get no farther on. It does not explain why I want a thing which is of no particular benefit to myself. And it is the why of the want that prompted the action. It serves no purpose to tell people to do right because it is right, unless they have a means of determining what is right, and why it is right. Unless the ethical movement can answer this question, it has furnished no enduring structure to replace the old, it has not revealed the truth of the old. Science, which has shattered idols, must explain religion. Nor is this so difficult when once we have understood ourselves. Realising that we are parts of the universe subject to the same processes manifest in all other forms of life, realizing that our egos are but social growths that develop according to inheritance and environment, as do all other growths, we are prepared to realise that our actions are prompted by the unconscious Me, the Man which has been accumulating, so to speak, for ages, the social Soul which is the common inheritance of all. This large Me which lies below our conscious selves, is the result of all the untold struggled of Man to come in harmony with his environment; and the same struggle goes on is us, will go on in the future. Our pleasure is an insignificant quantity having nothing whatever to do with the question. Indeed it is pain, not pleasure, which unbars the gate of Progress, since all progress comes through a quickened consciousness that we are no longer in harmony with our environment, an awakening to the fact that the social ideal has moved forward and we must follow it. To illustrate: chattel slavery was right so long as the ideals of men had not advanced beyond it; the yoke rested easily upon the body of the slave and the soul of the master. Both were happy. Why have they not remained so? “Servants obey your masters” was to do right because it was right. Why not have continued? Because with the development of the vast economies of modern production, the chattel slave system no longer held its old relations in society: the unconscious Me clamored for adjustment. The social ideal of larger liberty had extended to the black men. In the end armies killed each other. For pleasure? Hardly. For duty? Yes. To accomplish their ideal of right. It is very shallow to retort, “that is the result of the duty superstition; people kill each other.” As well blame those who first conceived of communication between two villages for building turnpikes instead of at once jumping to steel rails and locomotives.

The rightness of an action is measured by its harmony with the ideal which Science points out as the path of the social march. Upon this foundation the ethical movement may rest, knowing the truth of the old creeds, that they bound men together and developed the social character, repressing the instincts of selfishness, instead of scattering, disintegrating and belittling men, which is the inevitable result of the Egoistic philosophy – the gospel of Caprice.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Philosophy of Selfishness and Metaphysical Ethics,” The Open Court 5, no. 20 (July 9, 1891): 2871-2873.  

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