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Minus One: Controversy

From the archives of The Memory Hole

Philosophical Egoism: Tempest in a Teapot

The following is an exchange between Robert LeFevre and S.E. Parker in the pages of the latter's publication Minus One. The editions, in particular, were Nos. 20 and 21, dated, Oct-Dec 1967 and Feb 1968 respectively.

Morality vs. Egoism

Robert LeFevre

I have noticed the letter from Dr. Murray Rothbard which appears in your publication, "Minus One," for July of 1967. By this means I discovered for the first time that some of my views have been the target of discussion in an earlier publication apparently under the title: "Slings and Arrows." That earlier publication escaped my notice, so I wish to use this means to thank Dr. Rothbard for coming to my defence in the absence of my knowledge that I had been attacked.
I have often been puzzled by the emotional intensity of those Dr. Rothbard classifies as "Stirnerites," but your own observations following his letter have helped me to understand. If I grasp your point correctly, you object to moral instruction on the ground that this merely replaces the State and/or God and the idea of external punishment of prison or hell with the idea of internal punishment and guilt.
In other words, the Stirnerite must insulate himself against any concept of error at all. Whatever a Stirnerite wishes to do is "right" by definition, since there is no real "right" or "wrong" and the will of the individual is triumphant and always justified even against self-correction.
But how does the Stirnerite become a Stirnerite? He can only move to this position by correcting prior conclusions he may have reached. Thus, the Stirnerite must use the process of self-correction UNTIL he becomes a Stirnerite, after which further correction becomes impossible.
This is to say that the Stirnerite, in order to maintain his position, must do so with a closed mind. Any possibility of acceptance of any other thought than Stirner's would lead the Stirnerite into an unacceptable position of admitting the possibility of error (guilt?) and this must be rejected as an inviolable absolute. Thus, the Stirnerite is guilty of the very worst of crimes which he lays at the door of the mystic. For he has created a god and he worships at the shrine without the willingness or even the capacity to consider that his god may be a false god.
Worse than this, this god of the Stirnerites is his own ego, which is always right. And like most mystical structures, a prophet of this mystique has been provided in the person of Stirner who, like the ego, can never be wrong.
With this before me, I can understand the religious intensity of the Stirnerite who is so fearful of being shown in error that it is a part of his theology that guilt (recognition of error) is impossible. I am now wondering if the real problem here may not lie in the too sweeping rejection of guilt as a necessary result of the recognition of error. It seems to me that moral instruction does not necessarily lead to the acceptance of guilt, although I grant that this is always a possibility. What the Stirnerite seems to imply is that moral instruction is, of necessity, unnatural and therefore contrary to nature. And why should anyone have a sense of guilt simply because of his nature? Obviously, to feel guilt because of the function of a man's nature would be a kind of folly IF that were all that was involved. But this is to see man as having a one-dimensional nature, not as he is, but as Stirnerites think he is. And that is the prime folly of the Stirnerite faith for it rests upon a one-dimensional philosophy which is hopelessly contrary to the nature of man.
Man is a creature in contradiction. He is an organism that is motivated by a complexity of drives which serve to check and countercheck. He is capable of nobility and virtue, in his behavior. He is equally capable of ignominious and ignoble conduct. And all of these drives stem from his ego. He is paradoxical, quixotic, and ambivalent. But the high priesthood of the Stirnerite cult rejects all ambivalence by the happy hurdle method known to all fictions writers. He re-defines man as a creature who cannot be right or wrong, who has no complexities and no inward struggle at all AFTER he has attained to the faith.
It is marvelously simplistic and beautiful. It also denies reality. By his fear of finding himself guilty of ignobility the Stirnerite defines ignobility as equivalent to nobility, pretending to see no differences in behavioral patterns.
May I respectfully suggest that the publisher of MINUS ONE is guilty of non-Stirnerite behavior in his efforts as a publisher? For, referring to other portions of his comments to the Rothbard letter it appears that it is none of the publisher's business what Mr. A or MR. B does or thinks, since his concern is purely with himself. But since his concern is purely with himself, he can have no interest or concern with the thoughts and behavior of others. And having no interest or concern with the thoughts or behavior of others, why does he publish articles which may or may not stimulate others to particular courses of thought or action? Apparently, he has some kind of non-Stirnerite motivation for he pretends to find some of my thoughts and actions in error. But they cannot be in error, for there is no error, by definition. It is moral judgement, utterly unworthy of a true Stirnerite.
Might I suggest that "guilt" when it is no more than a recognition of prior error, is the principal method by which we all learn? We learn by "trial and error," not by the process of self-justification. I wonder if Stirnerites wish to be known as people who are incapable of learning? If so, their minds are locked in concrete and there is no point at all in communicating with them.
So, in one sense, it might be reasoned that Stirnerites are cowed by an enormous spook--the fear that they might even think for a moment that they had done or thought something incorrectly. This fear is so gigantic that they cannot even admit it into their consciousness.

In Reply

S.E. Parker

"Moral people skimmed off the best fat from religion, ate it themselves, and are now having a tough job to get rid of the resulting scrofula."

Max Stirner

Mr. LeFevre's whole wondrous case against "Stirnerites" rests on his fallacious identification of "guilt" with "recognition of error." In his view any action which is liable to go "wrong" (and this means every action) is by virtue of this a moral or an immoral action. But I find a mistake in a mathematical calculation is my correction of this "error" a moral action? Mr. LeFevre seems to believe that it would be. But this is to completely confuse the issue even from a moralist standpoint. "Moral conduct," wrote Lan Freed "is conduct motivated by the aim of acting self-sacrificingly, is obedience to the 'voice' whose first command is 'act not as you desire to act, nor as you consider it expedient to act, but as you feel that you ought, morally speaking, to act.'" (Social Pragmatism) A moral action is therefore an "ought" action purely and simply. To argue otherwise is to apply moral value judgements to areas in which, morally speaking, they do not apply.
The "Stirnerite," egoist standpoint is that a "right" action is simply one appropriate to the end desired, and a "wrong" action one inappropriate to the end desired. In other words, there are expedient and inexpedient actions for an egoist--nothing more. There is no question of moral "guilt" involved if an egoist makes a mistake and recognizes that he has done so. He merely corrects it if he can, and if he cannot he takes more care next time. How, from a logical angle, it follows that if there is no real "right" or "wrong" then a "Stirnerite" is "by definition" always "right" I fail to see. Perhaps Mr. LeFevre follows a different logic than mine.
I do not know any member of the "high priesthood of the Stirnerite cult" who rejects "all ambivalence." They can't belong to my church and certainly haven't read their Stirner properly! However, I promise Mr. LeFevre I will raise this grave matter at the next Bayreuth College of Cardinals Conference when the spirit of Saint Max will be amongst us to assist us in our debates. Seriously, an egoist is only concerned to "define" himself, contradictory or otherwise, not "Man."
Because I wrote that what Mr. A does to Mr. B "only concerns me if my interests are threatened" it by no means follows that I cannot concern myself with other individuals or their ideas. If Mr. B is a friend of mine I have an interest in him and will concern myself with his defence if I can because my interest is being threatened by Mr. A.
Again, I am interested in certain ideas and concern myself with publicizing and discussing them. One of my means for doing this is MINUS ONE. But I only do so because it pleases me to, not out of any moral obligation to preach a gospel, save the world, or even point out the errors in other people's thinking. If these ideas did not interest me, I would not bother about them, anymore than I do about an argument between two orthinologists as to the best way to catch butterflies.
"Stirnerites," therefore are not cowed by any spooks. I doubt if they lose much sleep over any guilty fear that "they had done or thought something incorrectly." I leave the spook of morality to haunt the devisers of systems of moral instruction who, by "definition," have a vested psychological interest in guilt or fear.
No one who has read and understood "The Ego and His Own" would ever regard Stirner's ideas as sacred or unquestionable. It is up to the reader to make what use he can of the ideas it expresses. "The Ego and His Own" is neither a revelation from above nor from below. It is a consistent exposition of individualist anarchism; it can inspire or enrage, according to one's taste; but it is nothing more than a book written by an individual. To try, even in sarcasm, to label it as a holy gospel simply puts the labeller out on a limb. He has only himself to blame if someone saws off the limb behind him.

This exchange continues here.

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