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Month: October 2001

Listserv: How I Discovered Selfishness

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

October 8, 2001

How I Discovered Selfishness

From: David Veksler <[email protected]>
Date: Mon Oct 8, 2001 12:14 am
Subject: PHIL class response/Reaction to reaction to someone’s reaction/My Life’s Story/Command vs Autonomous Ethical Theory

Unlike some of the "simple, sheltered minds" here, I've given my morality and philosophy a lot of thought for as long as I can remember,
so this is a long story, and if you are not willing to view your innermost beliefs in a critical light, you might as well skip over it.

I have never been satisfied with the dominant "social" morality that I found surrounding me. What follows is my reaction to the various
ideologies I have been exposed to in my lifetime and how they led to to my current beliefs.

*fadeout waaaay back to my childhood....*

Much of my childhood was spent in the former USSR, where the dominant morality was serving the State, -- blind faith in the actions of the State, and self-sacrifice of one's life- goals in exchange for the job which the state deemed you fit for. As an example, I remember, our teacher asking as what we wanted to do with our lives, and various kids in my 4th grade class said engineer, pilot, astronaut, etc. Then the teacher told us that that's all nice but we have to keep in mind that the State needs factory workers, potato pickers, etc, so we have to sacrifice our dreams, because the state knows what's best. Well, my parents didn't think that the State knew what was best, and they came to the U.S. shortly before the USSR collapsed because, as my dad told me long before the left --in America you decide what you want to do with your life. Because we were Jewish, we were quickly embraced by the Jewish community, and I, more that the rest of my family, discovered God with an intensity easily overshadowed the State. Even as a young child, perhaps because I was so young, I quickly adopted the idea that my life's purpose was to "serve God" and as I learned the horrors of the State (we lived close to Chernobyl for many years) I adopted what I thought was an Absolute (Divine Command Theory) in the form of the Ten Commandments, etc. The standard of value I adopted was God's Will, and the criteria I adopted was the ideal of the Torah (that's the Old Testament for you Christians) For several years I studied Jewish law in detail, including a summer-long trip to Israel. I learned a lot about Judaism, but I struggled to continually redefine my notion of God because I was unable to come to a logical notion of God, and I was unable to accept the idea that anything could be beyond my comprehension.

Eventually, I saw that an ethical life had its own benefit, without the need for heavenly reward or retribution, and adopted an Autonomy of Ethics position. I struggled for years as I read many different notions of God, and was particularly attracted by the writing of Baruch Spinoza, who had a semi-scientific first-cause notion of God. In effect, I became a secular humanist, whose standard of value was Society, as it was the only standard that provided me with a concrete evaluation of my actions. I believed that the Pious was that which was utilitarian, or provided the most good for the most people. With time, I stopped believing things "on faith" as my belief in God wavered, and yet I still embraced the ethic of the Jewish religion as a ready guide to life, and believed it its correctness by virtue of its practical success in leading to the happiness of the Greatest Number. I explored Christianity, but was dissatisfied with its negative view of existence, and refused to accept that man innately evil (i.e., original sin), and that man on earth is doomed to suffer, because I saw that happiness was indeed possible, and a virtuous life had its own earthly reward.

My ethical/religious development might have stopped there, but then I discovered Environmentalism. In search of the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number, I became a politically active liberal, and supported distributive economic policy, welfare, etc, as a means to the "debt" of self-sacrifice I felt we owed to society, and through environmentalism, to our grandchildren. This might have been all well and good, but I could not resolve the inner conflict I felt between the desire to "repay" the American society to whom I felt indebted for my welfare, and the happiness that I was supposed to achieve by doing this. This debate became a troubling issue to me, when I became an economics major in college, and learned, despite the insistence of my professors and religious leaders -- that self-interest was the one and only driving force behind wealth, that wealth had to be *created* not found and exploited as a natural resource in the form of a worker's labor or an ore dug up from the earth. I learned that the enforcement of property rights was the best way to protect the environment, and that charity based on need rather than merit encouraged men to live as moochers rather than producers -- basically that self-interest was the sole driving force behind the creation of the tools that raised our lives above that of cavemen, and allowed us to have the time to sit around discussing how we need to go back to a "simpler" time and decry the "materialism" that kept our lives from being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

It was around this time that I discovered that it was the same idea that I had carried from my days in the USSR to America --- that whether I valued the State, God, or Society, it was collectivism that I had placed as my highest value, and collectivism meant the good of anyone but myself. About this time, a friend told me that my ideas resembled those of Ayn Rand, and in reading her books, I was suddenly able to name and define the beliefs that had recently changed the focus of my life.

*fadeout back to philosophy class...*

So, when we talk about what it is that gives morals their meaning, I say that morals to not come from God or a vacuum. It is MAN that gives values meaning, and it's is his welfare that defines them. The basic criteria of values is therefore man's LIFE. Anything that furthers one's life is moral and good, and anything that detracts from life, is thus immoral, and can only lead to death. The only way to live a moral life is then to follow our selfish, rational self-interest, not momentary hedonistic pleasure, but the long-term happiness that comes from living a successful life.

Well, that's all for now,

David V...
[email protected]


Aurelie Hardwick wrote:

> I've been struggling with this class from day one. Not because the
> topics or readings are difficult, but because my simple, sheltered
> mind refuses to "open up" during class discussions. I realized the
> extent of my problem just today. What follows probably isn't going to
> seem noteworthy to most of you, but for me, it's a huge breakthrough.
> In Tuesday's class, we were discussing/debating the Divine Command
> Theory and the Autonomy of Ethics position. As soon as I dutifully
> copied the definitions for each in my notes, I realized that the
> obvious theory for me to support was that of the Divine Command,
> because I am a Christian, and aren't I supposed to believe that
> /every/ good thing comes from God (morals certainly being good)? Since
> then I've been searching all of my C.S. Lewis books for some profound
> words to back up my "belief" in the idea that ethical principles are
> commands of God. Frustratingly enough, I found nothing. So I decided
> to read some more. While reading "What is Virtue" in our supplement
> packet, I kept thinking about what Pro! fessor Pappas said about
> someone being able to be a theist and still believe in the autonomy of
> ethics. Now maybe I'm just really simple-minded and confused in my
> thinking, but I think that if the whole idea of virtue can be separate
> and distinct from God, then perhaps morals are separate from God also.
> And I believe that the idea of virtue is very much separate from God.
> There is a quote in the article ("What is Virtue") based on an
> observation made by Aristotle that children "learn virtue by following
> rules of good behavior, hearing stories of virtuous people...and
> imitating virtuous models: parents, friends, and worthy public
> figures." This doesn't say anything about learning virtue by watching
> /religious, /or God-fearing people. This pointed out t! o me the
> obvious fact that not everyone who has morals has them as merely a
> by-product of their religion. I myself had morals long before I became
> a Christian. Now I don't know if these non-religious people get their
> morals from watching religious people acting on their morals, or from
> determining that they should do "good" just for the sake of doing
> "good." Either way, being non-religious, they probably aren't leading
> moral lives because they feel commanded by God to do so. Reading on, I
> came to this statement: "Sometimes virtues clash, as justice and
> compassion often do. Choices must be made, one good placed above
> another." Since choices have to be made between "goods," maybe God's
> commands are like hints on! which "good" to choose, because He has
> already made the choice for us (at least those of us who are
> religious.) And He makes His decision from the choices that are
> already there, apart from Him. So now I'm thinking that the idea of
> virtue is clearly autonomous. And while I have no proof of this right
> now, I'm going to say that if virtue is autonomous from God, and if
> virtue is a "branch" of ethics, don't ethics (morality) have to be
> autonomous from God also?
> (If anything I said sounded like total nonsense, y'all please go easy
> on me. This is the first time I've allowed myself to think outside the
> box- and it's really scary to be sharing this with all you
> philosophers! Still, I would love to hear your comments, so I can try
> to expand my thinking some more, and then hopefully clear things up.)