Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Bias, Liberation, and Cosmopolis


 Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J.

 6. Individual Bias 

There is a rather notable obscurity in the meaning of the terms, egoism and altruism. 

When a carnivorous animal stalks and kills its prey, it is not properly egoistic; for it is simply following its instincts and, in general, for animals to follow their instincts is for them to secure the biological ends of individual and specific survival. 

By parity of reasoning, when a female animal fosters its young, it too is following its instincts; though it contributes to a general biological end, still it does so rather by the scheming of nature than by altruism in its proper sense. 

Finally, if animal spontaneity is neither egoistic nor altruistic, it seems to follow that the same must be said of human spontaneity; men are led by their intersubjectivity both to satisfy their own appetites and to help others in the attainment of their satisfaction; but neither type of activity is necessarily either egoistic or altruistic. 

There is a further aspect to the matter.  In his Ethics, Aristotle asked whether a good friend loved himself.  His answer was that while true friendship excluded self-love in the popular sense, none the less it demanded self-love in a higher sense; for a man loves himself, if he wants for himself the finest things in the world, namely, virtue and wisdom; and without virtue and wisdom a man can be a true friend neither to himself nor to anyone else. 

Accordingly, as Aristotle’s answer suggests, when one turns from the realm of spontaneity to that of intelligence and reasonableness, one does not find that egoism and altruism provide ultimate categories. 

For intelligence and reasonableness with their implications automatically assume the ultimate position; and from their detached viewpoint there is.  set up a social order in which, as in the animal kingdom, both taking care of oneself and contributing to the well-being of others have their legitimate place and necessary function. 

None the less, it remains that there is a sense in which egoism is always wrong and altruism its proper corrective.  For man does not live exclusively either on the level of intersubjectivity or on the level of detached intelligence. 

On the contrary, his living is a dialectical resultant springing from those opposed but linked principles; and in the tension of that union of opposites, the root of egoism is readily to be discerned. 

For intelligence is a principle of universalization and of ultimate synthesis; it understands similars in the same manner; and it gives rise to further questions on each issue until all relevant data are understood. 

On the other hand, spontaneity is concerned with the present, the immediate, the palpable; intersubjectivity radiates from the self as from a centre, and its efficacy diminishes rapidly with distance in place or time. 

Egoism is neither mere spontaneity nor pure intelligence but an interference of spontaneity with the development of intelligence. 

With remarkable acumen one solves one’s own problems.  With startling modesty one does not venture to raise the relevant further questions, Can one’s solution be generalized? Is it compatible with the social order that exists? Is it compatible with any social order that proximately or even remotely is possible?

The precise nature of egoistic interference with intellectual process calls for attention.  It is not to be thought that the egoist is devoid of the disinterestedness and detachment of intelligent inquiry.  More than many others, he has developed a capacity to face issues squarely and to think them through. 

The cool schemer, the shrewd calculator, the hardheaded self-seeker are very far from indulging in mere wishful thinking. 

Without the detachment of intelligence, they cannot invent and implement stratagems that work. 

Without the disinterestedness of intelligence, they cannot raise and meet every further question that is relevant within their restricted terms of reference. 

Nor can one say that egoism consists in making intelligence the instrument of more elementary desires and fears.  For as long as the egoist is engaged upon his problems, the immanent norms of intelligent inquiry overrule any interference from desire or fear; and while the egoist refuses to put the still further questions that would lead to a profound modification of his solution, still that refusal does not make intelligence an instrument but merely brushes it aside. 

Egoism, then, is an incomplete development of intelligence.  It rises above a merely inherited mentality.  It has the boldness to strike out and think for itself.

But it fails to pivot from the initial and preliminary motivation, provided by desires and fears, to the self-abnegation involved in allowing complete free play to intelligent inquiry. 

Its inquiry is reinforced by spontaneous desires and fears; by the same stroke it is restrained from a consideration of any broader field. 

Necessarily, such an incompleteness of development is an exclusion of correct understanding.  Just as in the sciences, intelligence begins from hypotheses that prove insufficient and advances to further hypotheses that successively prove more and more satisfactory, so too in practical living it is through the cumulative process of further questions and further insights that an adequate understanding is reached. 

As in the sciences, so also in practical living, individuality pertains to the empirical residue, so that there is not one course of action that is intelligent when I am concerned and quite a different course when anyone else is involved.  What is sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander. 

But egoistic emancipation rests on a rejection of merely proverbial wisdom yet fails to attain the development of personal intelligence that would re-establish the old sayings. 

Thus, the golden rule is to do to others as you would have them do to you.  One may object that common sense is never complete until the concrete situation is reached, and that no two concrete situations are identical. 

Still, it does not follow that the golden rule is that there is no golden rule.  For the old rule did not advocate identical behaviour in significantly different situations; on the contrary, it contended that the mere interchange of individual roles would not by itself constitute a significant difference in concrete situations. 

Nor is the egoist totally unaware of his self-deception.  Even in the bias and scotosis of the dramatic subject, which operates preconsciously, there is a measure of self-suspicion and disquiet. 

In the egoist there are additional grounds for an uneasy conscience, for it is not by sheer inadvertence but also by a conscious self-orientation that he devotes his energies to sizing up the social order, ferreting out its weak points and its loop-holes, and discovering devices that give access to its rewards while evading its demands for proportionate contributions. 

As has been insisted already, egoism is not spontaneous, self-regarding appetite. 

Though it may result automatically from an incomplete development of intelligence, it does not automatically remain in that position. 

There have to be overcome both the drive of intelligence to raise the relevant further questions that upset egoistic solutions and, as well, the spontaneous demands of intersubjectivity which, if they lack the breadth of a purely intellectual viewpoint with its golden rule, at least are commonly broader in their regard for others than is intelligent selfishness. 

Hence it is that, however much the egoist may appreciate the efforts of philosophers to assure him that intelligence is instrumental, he will be aware that, in his cool calculations, intelligence is boss and that, in his refusal to consider further questions, intelligence is not made into a servant but merely ruled out of court. 

Again, however much he may reassure himself by praising the pragmatists, still he suffers from the realization that the pragmatic success of his scheming falls short of a justification; for prior to the criteria of truth invented by philosophers, there is the dynamic criterion of the further question immanent in intelligence itself. 

The egoist’s uneasy conscience is his awareness of his sin against the light.  Operative within him, there is the Eros of the mind, the desire and drive to understand; he knows its value, for he gives it free rein where his own interests are concerned; yet he also repudiates its mastery, for he will not grant serious consideration to its further relevant questions.

Next: Group Bias

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