Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 24

Politics of Human Nature 8: Asceticism. At one point in his Mind and Society, Pareto notes that the “principles from which the humanitarian doctrine is logically derived … express in objective form a subjective sentiment of asceticism.” And indeed, for Pareto, asceticism constitutes another important aspect in the humanitarian sickness which afflicts many individuals in modern society. But what, precisely, is this asceticism? Is it a theory or premises, as it is according to Objectivism, that has been absorbed into an individual’s subconscious, where it wreaks havoc on the individual’s "psycho-epistemology"? No, it’s nothing of the sort. Pareto describes asceticism as “sentiments that prompt the human being to seek sufferings or abstain from pleasures without design of personal advantage, to go counter to the instinct that impels living creatures to seek pleasurable things and avoid painful things.” Does this asceticism arise, as implied in Objectivism, from accepting the premise of altruism and self-sacrifice? Again no. Pareto regards asceticism as an offshoot of the residues of sociality.

Acts of asceticism are quite largely acts originating in residues related to living in society that continue functioning when they have ceased to have any utility and acquire an intensity which carries them beyond the point where they might be useful. The residue of asceticism must, in other words, be classified with residues of sociality, and frequently represents a hypertrophy of sentiments of sociality….


All [the] varieties of asceticism, when exacerbated by their [derivations], and when efforts are made to enforce them upon others, are the source of huge amounts of suffering that have afflicted, and continue to afflict, the human race. The fact that people tolerate such suffering, and sometimes even accept them voluntarily instead of rejecting them and stamping on those who promote them as on poisonous snakes, shows conclusively how powerful the sentiments corresponding to them are. Really they are perversions of the instinct of sociality, and without that instinct human society could not exist.

Now while an Objectivist can at least agree with Pareto’s negative assessment of these sentiments of asceticism, Pareto’s attitude toward their existence is very different from that of Rand and the partisans of her philosophy. Pareto sees these sentiments as part of a certain type of human nature. Most people have sentiments of sociality. Such sentiments are necessary to the social order. But unfortunately, in some people, these sentiments are perverted. Even worse, in many other individuals, there exists a kind of sympathy for such sentiments, so that instead of rigorously opposing the baneful practices that arise as a consequence of this asceticism, people tolerate them, sometimes even praise them. Since all of this is rooted in sentiment, rather than in theory, it cannot be eradicated by arguing with it. Indeed, like stupidity and mendacity, asceticism, along with sympathy for ascetic practices, has existed throughout human history and probably will always exist. It’s simply part of the human condition; and while sensible people will fight it the best they can, it would be foolish to believe that much progress can ever be made against this congenital disease of human psycho-pathology.

Now there may be some congenital optimists out there who are under the illusion that, because the ascetic practices of the pre-modern times have long ago disappeared in the West, that there actually has been progress against this sentiment. This is, however, a very superficial way of regarding the issue. The old practices of asceticism, it is true, have, thankfully, disappeared. But they have given way to new practices which, although not nearly as intense, are in some respects worse. The Christian ascetics were primarily inner-directed. They voluntarily chose to whip themselves or reside for years on the summits of pillars or engage in other equally senseless practices. Modern ascetics tend to be far more outer-directed. They wish to inflict their urge for self-sacrifice on others. This we see quite clearly, for example, in the countless follies of radical environmentalism, particularly in relation to the global warming hysteria, which is being used by our modern ascetics as a pretext for forcing pointless sacrifices on the leading nations of the West. One can hardly imagine a more silly, stupid, and senseless piece of legislation than Obama’s cap and trade plan. It would be much better for society if, instead of trying to pass such legislation, our modern ascetics, like the ascetics of old, preferred self-flagellation and years on top of columns.

Rand would have us believe that she provided the solution to this problem of asceticism and “self-sacrifice” in her arguments for egoism and against altruism. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Although Rand’s strictures against altruism, when they include the baneful types of asceticism and humanitarianism noted by Pareto, are largely justified, Rand is not content with confining her denunciations solely to the most palpable abuses. By polarizing the entire issue as a conflict between egoism on the one side and the most extreme and horrid form of altruism on the other, she denies (at least by implication) the more reasonable positions that flourish between these two extremes. Since most human beings are not capable of the sort of “rational” or “enlightened” selfishness advocated by Rand, the advocacy of egoism, to the extent that it has any influence at all, will likely cause more harm than good. A society that was either destitute or weak in such sentiments of sociality as charity and concern for the feelings of others would not be a pleasant place in which to live. Concern for others, desire for the approbation of others, admiration for charitable acts all serve as useful counterweights to the more selfish passions of mankind. Belittling or making light of these sentiments of sociality hardly helps advance the cause against the abuses of asceticism and “self-sacrifice.”

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Forgive my ignorance, but I'm lost. I understand what each individual word means in this post but just don't understand what it's all about. In a nutshell could somebody be a lovey and do the honours and make it like, easier to understand. Sorry to dumb this place down, but not all of us have degrees.
Oh and before anyone starts, sure people with out a degree can understand this I'm sure, but not this one.

gregnyquist said...

" I understand what each individual word means in this post but just don't understand what it's all about."

It's primarily about what causes people to engage in ascetic behavior. Ascetism make include acts of self torture (such as whipping oneself or living on top of a column for years on end) or, in its modern guise, vegetarianism or radical environmentalism. Ascetism involves seeking suffering and deprivation for yourself and others. Why do people do such horrible things to themselves and others?

Rand's theory is that they have been taught to do such things by mankind's moral philosophers. Rand believed that an individual's psychology was caused by the "premises" (i.e., theoretical beliefs) they accepted. If, because they were preached the nobility of self-sacrifice, they accept this view, it causes them to develop a psychological propensity to believe in asceticism, and to therefore engage in acts of asceticism.

Pareto has a different belief. He believes psychology is predominantly innate, though environmental factors, including ideas, may also play a role. Man, for Pareto, is a social man, with instincts that help him live in society, such as concern for one's fellows and a willingness to cooperate with and help other people. These instincts serve as a counterweight to balance the selfish passions that most people have. But just as there always people who are weak in these social instincts (like psychopaths, for instance), there are also people who are too strong in them, so that the social instincts overwhelm the selfish passions, creating a distored psychology that seeks self-sacrifice, even when it is harmful to society. Humanitarianism, altruism, "self-sacrifice" might be useful to society, if they serve to temper unenlightened selfishness, because what is needed is a kind of balance. This balance is difficult to attain precisely because most people are not rational. They are incapable of impartially judging between their own interest and those of other people. They need some "altruistic" emotions to balance their tendency to be too selfish so they will not treat others too unjustly. But if their altruistic emotions are too strong, the balance is lost and they end up being unjust to themselves.

Michael Prescott said...

Historically, many ascetics have been motivated by the desire to achieve enlightenment, i.e., to undergo a transcendent experience of oneness with all of reality. Fasting, isolation, voluntary cessation of speech, etc. were ways of focusing the mind on this goal. Contra Rand, altruism had nothing to do with it; the ascetics "selfishly" wanted personal enlightenment, and wanted it so badly that they were willing to give up comfort and pleasure in exchange for it. Contra Pareto, this urge was not necessarily pathological, since many of the ascetics who followed this path did find what they were seeking.

When Pareto describes asceticism as "sentiments that prompt the human being to seek sufferings or abstain from pleasures without design of personal advantage," he forgets that mystical ascetics do have a "design of personal advantage" - they want to expand their consciousness beyond that of ordinary people who are mired in day-to-day minutiae. Whether they were right or wrong to pursue this goal is another question, but surely, from their own perspective, they were acting for "personal advantage" as they understood it.

Anon69 said...

If an individual wants to flagellate himself, then let him. The issue is when one individual insists on asceticism for someone else. For example, a parent who, noting that her child is enjoying life a bit too much, throttles back on his dietary intake until he is at the brink of starvation and at an appropriate level of misery. One of the dangers, of course, is that this type of altruistic denial is impossible to calibrate carefully enough: the parent will never know how close to sickness or even death their child was, as a result of their ascetic machinations. In other words, "a little death" is a risky choice (paraphrasing a rationale for Objectivism). On this issue, Rand was right: there is no way to pursue just a little, or the right amount, of death and suffering - and to force the same upon others is the greatest of evils. If "sociality" requires it, then I say: sociality be damned.

Wells said...

Michael Prescott said this
...
Historically, many ascetics have been motivated by the desire to achieve enlightenment, i.e., to undergo a transcendent experience of oneness with all of reality. Fasting, isolation, voluntary cessation of speech, etc. were ways of focusing the mind on this goal. Contra Rand, altruism had nothing to do with it; the ascetics "selfishly" wanted personal enlightenment, and wanted it so badly that they were willing to give up comfort and pleasure in exchange for it. Contra Pareto, this urge was not necessarily pathological, since many of the ascetics who followed this path did find what they were seeking.
...

I'll also add that asceticism can also be about people proving that they are hard (e.g. When people take blood oaths to do something, Or partake in risky stunts).

It is in some cases about self punishment (e.g. Going down with a ship, obeying an order to commit suicide)

It is also about initiation (e.g. gang tattoos, pain in basic that doesn't teach military effectiveness, hazing in fraternities, high flunk out courses at the beginning of majors).

Anonymous said...

Right, thanks for clearing that up but to get practical, my wife is a vegetarian. I won't go into the reasons why as I'm sure oyu all know the main agurements for being a vegetarian, even if you don't accept them. So, is my wife, as a result of her vegetarinism, good or evil? If the latter, how should she be punished?

Anonymous said...

Apologies for the spelling mistakes in the last post. I really should check before I submit.
Should read you instead of oyu and arguement instead of agurement.
If there were any other spelling mistakes I'm sure anyone that points these out will 'win' a copy of Atlas Shrugged, donated by the ARI! Who will donate it, even if they don't know that.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty close to being vegetarian too, It has nothing to do with ascetism in my case - I suffered from all sorts of high cholestorol and heart problems for years so I'm just trying to manage my health.

Laj

Anonymous said...

Right, but if you were a vegetarian for ascetic reasons that would be evil and you would need to be punished, yes?

gregnyquist said...

"Historically, many ascetics have been motivated by the desire to achieve enlightenment, i.e., to undergo a transcendent experience of oneness with all of reality. Fasting, isolation, voluntary cessation of speech, etc. were ways of focusing the mind on this goal"

Well, yes, that may be true up to a point; but how much of this is merely a rationalization, and how much of it can account for the primary motive in the whole sorry business? Ascetic conduct is likely the product of a complex psychology, with many motives going into the final result, including purely religious or "spiritual" motives. Moreover, these mixtures of motives will be different for different people. Nonetheless, when all is said and done, I think it's more plausible that, when we are talking about extreme asceticism, something along the lines of what Pareto suggests is closer to the truth than either what Rand or the ascetics themselves say. Keep in mind, these extreme ascetics not only tortured themselves, they not infrequently refused to have anything more to do with their loved ones (causing great emotional pain among these individuals) and they often refused basic hygenie, going years on end without washing, eating unclean food, etc. It's not a pleasant spectacle—no matter how its spun. There is probably a bit of showmanship involved in it as well. Never underestimate what people will do for vanity. In any case, to go through such means to find "enlightenment" seems not only strange and excessive, but simply irrational. And if such practices really were so effective in finding "enlightenment" (what on earth could that be?), then why have these practices fallen out of favor in the West? I suspect that, as public sentiment, spurred by rising wealth and new sources of entertainment, began losing interest in asceticism as a spectacle, as something to be admired, those inclined to engage in such spectacles decided to seek enlightenment in other ways. In other words, although vanity may not have been the primary motive in the business, it was sort of an X-factor, the triggering cause.

This is not to suggest that it is impossible that some ascetics may have attained some vague end (i.e., "enlightenment," "communion with God," etc. etc.) that was genuinely worth the trouble they went to. On the margins, the world is a very strange place. But I am skeptical that this occurred in more than a few cases.

gregnyquist said...

"Right, but if you were a vegetarian for ascetic reasons that would be evil and you would need to be punished, yes?"

No, it's not evil. I don't think even Rand would consider it evil. Vegetarian is generally a very mild version of ascetism. As long as the vegetarian does not seek to force his eating habits on anyone else, then his "punishment" is merely (1) how much he misses eating meat; and (2) whatever health problems may arise from a complete lack of meat. Since his "punishment" is self-inflicted, it's really nobody's business but his own.

Anonymous said...

What if she forces my children and me to eat vegetarian food to?

Or a single parent vegetarian does not let her children eat meat?

So if Rand would not condiser it evil I doubt she would consider it good (vegertariansim) so is it just grey?
Are vegetarians who believe in their heart of hearts that it is better to be meat free (health reason) acting irrationally?

gregnyquist said...

Anon69: "a parent who, noting that her child is enjoying life a bit too much, throttles back on his dietary intake until he is at the brink of starvation and at an appropriate level of misery."

Such a parent, whether motivated by asceticism or some other psycho-pathology, is engaged in child abuse and ought to be prosecuted by the state.

"On this issue, Rand was right: there is no way to pursue just a little, or the right amount, of death and suffering and to force the same upon others is the greatest of evils. If 'sociality' requires it, then I say: sociality be damned."

This misses the whole point of my post. Asceticism is a perversion of sociality, not an expression of it. And its misleading to frame the issue as pursuing "just a little, or the right amount, of death." If two children both desire the last peice of cake, the fact that one of them voluntarily, for "altruistic" reasons, allows the other child to have the last piece, does not involve pursuing just a little bit of death. The question of life and death doesn't arise in the issue at all. The child merely sacrifices a minor satisfaction.

Now it is a fact, testified by long experience of men and the world, that selfishness tends not to be terribly enlightened, precisely because people tend not to be very objective in judging what is due to them from others. Indeed, that's precisely the reason why people aren't allowed in legal proceedings to be judges in their own causes. Centuries of experience have taught the human race that most individuals cannot be trusted to be objective and impartial under such circumstances. Therefore, if everyone merely insisted on getting what they believe they deserved all the time, society would be torn by violence and conflict. There must exist some kind of sentiment on the other side that modifies this natural selfishness so that people aren't constantly nursing resentments and hatreds over such trivia as parking spaces, the last piece of cake, job promotions, etc. etc. This is how such bromides as "it is better to give than to receive" arise in the first place: as a brake against excessive selfishness. That there may be excesses on the "altruistic" or "selfless" side all reasonable people admit. But that doesn't mean that the milder forms of "self -sacrifice" (i.e., not always insisting on getting what you think you deserve) are analogous to some kind of sinister compromise with death. Giving up some bauble you think you deserve in order to keep the peace and get along better with others does not constitute a compromise with death.

gregnyquist said...

"What if she forces my children and me to eat vegetarian food to?"

What do you mean "force"? Do you mean at gun point? That would seem to be illegal.

"Or a single parent vegetarian does not let her children eat meat?"

While certainly not ideal, there are all kinds of minor harms that parents afflict on their children. It's just part of the human condition and has to be put up with.

"So if Rand would not condiser it evil I doubt she would consider it good (vegertariansim) so is it just grey?"

I'm not aware that Rand ever publicly commented on vegetarianism, so I don't know exactly where she would stand. I suspect that Rand would not consider it a major issue.

"Are vegetarians who believe in their heart of hearts that it is better to be meat free (health reason) acting irrationally?"

If the health reason is genuine, then vegetarianism is not irrational. Nor is it necessarily irrational if one can't stand eating meat. What's irrational is to impose sacrifices on oneself for no good reason. For most people, eating lean, non-fatty meats in moderation is good for their health; and if they enjoy such a repast, there doesn't seem to be any compelling reason to abstain from such delicacies.

Anonymous said...

At the end of the day even if Ayn Rand did not consider vegetarinism evil I'm pretty sure the ARI does. I mean pciture the scene, you are off out to dinner with a bunch of Objectivists, a rather dubious pleasure I know, but please just indulge me. The evening is going great, you take your seats, everyone is being nice to each other, the menus arrive and you say "I'm vegetarian, they do cater for vegetarians here I hope" and nervously laugh.

After the 3 hour lecture on how irrational it is to eat meat your head finally hits the table.

Anonymous said...

Well Greg I dont know what I mean by force as you were the one that stated as long as the vegetarian does not force their eating habits on someone else it's fine. So what did you mean by force?

What if the vegetarian is an animal lover and does not want them to die on his or her behalf so they can be feed. Would that be irrational and or evil and if so how or would you punish such thinking?

Not that you would, but Objectivism seems big of punishing people who are irrational and/or evil (in their eyes).

Michael Prescott said...

"This is not to suggest that it is impossible that some ascetics may have attained some vague end (i.e., 'enlightenment,' 'communion with God,' etc. etc.) that was genuinely worth the trouble they went to."

I agree that the more noxious forms of asceticism may be the result of mental illness or misguided intentions. Even today there are people who intentionally cut themselves, or who are addicted to unnecessary surgical procedures, etc. What I was thinking of was the more modest and focused asceticism practiced, say, by Buddhist monks.

For a more precise idea of what enlightenment may consist of, I recommend the 1901 book "Cosmic Consciousness" by Richard Maurice Bucke. Bucke compiled case histories of people throughout history and in modern times, including some known to him personally, who had undergone transcendent mystical experiences. He shows the commonalities of these experiences and the general agreement of the insights obtained.

It's an interesting book - more so for the case histories than for Bucke's preliminary commentary, in which he tries to put the phenomena in a now-dated anthropological context. The complete text is online at Google Books.

I don't think such experiences are so exceedingly rare; they may be more common than we realize. Though certain ascetic practices seem to help bring on the experience, they aren't always necessary; as Bucke shows, some episodes arise spontaneously, without expectation or preparation.

Daniel Barnes said...

Greg:
>I don't think even Rand would consider it evil.

Possibly, but certainly some of her followers do. Founder of the Rebirth of Reason site and affiliate of The Atlas Society Joe Rowlands also has another site where he denounces Evil Vegetarians.

Just as well that Ayn Rand's ethics are so clear, precise, and unequivocal - not like other philosophers!

gregnyquist said...

"So what did you mean by force?"

I mean physical coercion. This could include making a law against it, as long as the law was actually upheld.

Samuel Butler wrote dystopian fantasy, Erehwon (nowhere spelled backwards) which depicts a society where eating meat is illegal. However, there is one exception: if an animal dies by natural or accidental causes, the carcass may be butchered roasted. Of course, a great many animals were, oddly enough, dying accidental deaths in that society.

"What if the vegetarian is an animal lover and does not want them to die on his or her behalf so they can be feed?"

Here's where ascetism merges into humanitarianism; or perhaps a new word is needed: animalitarianism, to coin an ugly word for an ugly thing. Now whether such behavior is irrational depends whether we regard taking love of animals to such an extreme as irrational. The issue raises great difficulties because it is very hard to determine the rationality of an end (like the love of animals). If someone chooses the wrong means to attain a given end, it is easy to declare that irrational; but unless a given end is impossible to achieve, it is difficult to know whether it is in fact rational or not.

"Objectivism seems big of punishing people who are irrational and/or evil"

I'm not sure they are big on punishment per se, but there are many people in that camp, especially among the orthodox, who are frustrated or angry with the non-Objectivist world, and would like to see such people suffer (or perhaps even die) for refusing to accept the gospel according to Ayn Rand. This is a rather natural frustration in the sense that many people feel a strong desire to have other people think and believe exactly like they do. Just as the fanatical fundamentalist Christian wants everyone to be fundamentalists like himself, and the fanatical Marxist wants everyone to be Marxists in just the way he is, so the orthodox Objectivist wants everyone to be orthodox Objectivists, and feels annoyance and anger at all those who stubbornly refuse to swallow whole the entire Randian ideology. Our orthodox Objectivist becomes particularly angry at those whom he especially holds responsible for either standing in the way of Objectivist social goals or championing contrary goals.

Anonymous said...

So if an objectivist overheard a woman on a bus talking to her friend saying, that she just could not stand to think that one of those adorable little chickens, lambs or piggies was gonna be butchered for people to eat and that she was never gonna feed her little Johnnie or Joanne any meat, well the women would be safe from any reprisal from the objectivist?
The objectivist would just seethe inwardly and not break her jaw?

Wells said...

Discussion of vegetarianism sure brings out the dumb in people.

For the record
'Is it immoral to eat meat?' No, it's not immoral for a shark to do it, eat up.
'Is it immoral to refrain from eating meat?' No, what you eat is your personal choice, bon apatite.
'Are people who think it is immoral to eat meat themselves immoral?' No, they are wrong, but unless they throw paint at someone wearing a fur coat, they are not immoral.
'What about people concerned about animal cruelty?' It's wrong to kill for you amusement, but not to kill for your sustenance.

Abolaji said...

I think there is a significant correlation between torturing animals and violent criminal behavior against human beings (probably based in empathy). While I don't have anything per se against eating meat or animal products other than the effects on health when consumed daily, I will point out that even if we classify what Greg coined "animatarianism" as an over-the-top ethical belief, there is something clearly dangerous about someone who lacks the ability to empathize with animal suffering in that the same person is likely to lack the ability to empathize with human suffering.