Name this pop philosophy!
June 27, 2020 6:53 PM   Subscribe

It seems pretty common in metaphysical/new age/to some extent even psychotherapy type environments. The basic idea is that doing what you want is actually good for everyone, because mostly we all just want to survive, be healthy, have friends, live in safe, functional communities where other people also have their needs met, etc. So the goals aren't that morally unusual, but the idea that we will get to this point by pursuing self-interested desires, without any specific moral framework, is what's somewhat unique about it.

The further premise is that behavior that harms others significantly is usually caused by a combination of trauma or bad information about what will make us happy, and the more skillful we can become at satisfying our own desires, the more we will also be helping others, too.

I'm just trying to figure out what this philosophy is. Specifically:

A. is there a name for it? Enlightened self-interest is a related concept, but I guess I mean is there a name for believing that self-interest is the best way to make moral decisions because of enlightened self-interest.
B. is there any argument for this sort of idea in contemporary ethical philosophy?
C. where/who did it come from?
posted by lgyre to Religion & Philosophy (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"Capitalism takes the position that “greed is good,” which its supporters say is a positive thing" (Kim Kelly, Teen Vogue, Apr. 11, 2018)
posted by katra at 7:07 PM on June 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Isn't this just Objectivism?
posted by SPrintF at 7:33 PM on June 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Well, the idea that if everyone understood their interests properly, all would be virtuous, goes back to Plato. This does not, however, naturally lead to the assumption that everyone pursuing their interests as they actually understand them, leads to a common good.
posted by praemunire at 7:34 PM on June 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

It doesn't...feel like Objectivism? I'm not an expert, but briefly checking that out on Wikipedia, I see a few differences. What I'm thinking of involves listening to your emotions, not insisting that they be rational. So, for example, if you have an "irrational" desire for nature to keep existing, that counts and is also an argument against the kind of libertarian capitalism that Objectivism seems to like. There's also a focus (in the kind of philosophy I'm thinking of) on the fact that people actually tend to like each other and want to get along more than they want to compete. Definite similarities there, though!

Plato is an interesting lead. I was reading some Epicurus today and he had a bunch of related ideas, too, like that people are pretty peaceful and easily pleased if they're not feeling anxious about survival. And Hume/early utilitarianism is maybe a step in the right direction, too, in terms of common sense morality. I'm not sure where the thread I'm looking for goes after that, though.
posted by lgyre at 8:06 PM on June 27, 2020

posted by heyforfour at 9:38 PM on June 27, 2020

I was thinking hedonism at first, but apparently that has a super specific meaning in philosophy in terms of how pleasure is defined (i.e. it's not necessarily hedonism just because you're doing what you want, technically). I've been doing some research in other places, and it's looking like ethical egoism or rational egoism may be the closest to what I'm looking for. As an academic philosophy, though, it was never super popular and has been supported very little in the last 100 years, so I'm still pretty curious how it got so big in certain counter-culturalish spaces.
posted by lgyre at 9:59 PM on June 27, 2020

i don't know if there is a name but it sounds like my therapy. Learning to understand what I really desire, define boundaries, and assert them.

and that sometimes shows up with a bunch of self-care gloop on top.
posted by rebent at 10:03 PM on June 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're describing the self-help movement that started taking off in the middle of the last century.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:26 PM on June 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

To the question of why it's perennially popular (under various names), the answer is because it's an easy justification for doing what you want to do, which by definition is what everyone wants to do.
posted by tivalasvegas at 11:00 PM on June 27, 2020 [6 favorites]

This is a really interesting question. The position you outline seems to be both a real component of a lot of modern practical thinking about self-development and the good life and also, imo, not obviously wrong. The key element to me of what you outline, and which maybe others aren't seeing when they take this to be mere panglossian egoism, is that it's what we really want, and not what we may think we want and happen to be pursuing based on this false appraisal, that turns out to be in concord with the (real) wants of others and a good society.

I thought first of Adam Smith and Aristotle; but I haven't read either for decades, and their entries in the Stanford online encyclopedia of philosophy I linked to focus on the details of their versions of virtue ethics and not on any harmony between our true personal aims and the structure of a good society. Maybe it's there -- I can't imagine either would think virtuous individual personal aims will conflict in the aggregate of a society -- but it passes my knowledge to locate how this might fit into their thought. Aristotle famously argued we have to train ourselves in the virtues and that being good is a skill that's more or less acquired through learning and imitation; but the key question for you is whether according to him being good -- and having the sort of good ends you describe -- is what we really want to be, or whether it's something alien to us we have to learn to internalize for the sake of a society that's alien to our true desires. Freud definitely thought the latter; that socialization involves giving up our true desires with all the disappointment and renunciation involved. Civilization and its Discontents is the locus classicus for his view on this. So the founder of psychotherapy isn't the source of the current you want to identify.

More obviously close to the position you outline is the thought of the chinese confucian philosopher Mencius, who belived human beings to be in essence good and benevolent and that what is needed is simply good rearing and practices of self-cultivation to bring out this inherent goodness. Social harmony -- very important to confucians -- follows. Other confucianists disagreed, and it's a great tradition to look into if you're interested in ethics and moral development in general. But I can't imagine Mencius has been directly influential in the spreading of such ideas in the West.

One place to look in the psychoanalytic tradition is Winnicott, who foregrounded the distinction between the false and the true self. We can misidentify who we are, he thought, due to a social environment in our early development that mis-recognizes us, which creates a false self, false personality and alien desires it is one goal of therapy to overcome, releasing our true self. I am unaware of his detailed views about the relation between our true selves and a good society.

Finally, it seems to me there is something very Christian about the position you outline. A Christian discourse would contrast the sinful existence of a narcissistic self which is the source of evil with the life in grace of a person living in Christ. The idea is that our egoism has to be broken by a conversion experience and constant prayerful vigilance, but the other-centered life we get in return is in fact the good life and meets all of our actual needs while contributing to the just society, so far that's possible in the general fallen state of the world. I got a lot out of Paul Ricoeur's writings on evil and sin -- he sees sin as fundamentally about the self's alienation from itself through error in pursuing ones life path -- but there are doubtless countless Christian writers to look at on this, starting with the letters of St. Paul in the New Testament.
posted by bertran at 1:36 AM on June 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

I get what you're looking for but I don't have a name for it... Free will? It reminds me of The Paradox of Choice which sounds like the antithesis of us doing whatever we want in order to obtain happiness.
posted by teststrip at 2:07 AM on June 28, 2020

I'm rereading your question, again, and maybe I missed the extent to which the position you outline sees the method of moral development as the empirical pursuit of self-interested desires. That wouldn't, alas, be a particularly Christian approach, however much the end result might be similar to what you describe. I hope the other references I made seem relevant.
posted by bertran at 2:13 AM on June 28, 2020

[One deleted. Please make sure you are answering (or helping to answer) OP's three questions at the end of the post ("A, B, C") rather than giving your personal critique or feelings about the philosophy or ideology itself. Thanks.]
posted by taz (staff) at 2:26 AM on June 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

This reminds me of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, whose morals are often guided by her emotions and desires - after being chided for her improper conduct she replies: “...if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure.”

So perhaps some sort of extension of the
concept of sensibility.
posted by Naanwhal at 2:34 AM on June 28, 2020

Judging by the wikipedia articles it looks like the Self-Actualization strand of Humanistic psychology is part of the recent history of this position. The paradigmatic self-actualized person is described as, among other things, being 'socially compassionate'.
posted by bertran at 2:44 AM on June 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

It sounds like a close relative to Utilitarianism, but one which just fully embraces the lack of self awareness, or situatedness, which utilitarianism has problems with.

Basically, claiming utilitarianism as the base for your actions or judgements - i.e. what is better for all - comes with the problem that it is *you* who is determining what is good for all. We are all limited in our capacity to understand the impact/value of an action from outside our own perspective. Utilitarianism has always had this issue, and tends to smack of privilege.

The philosophy you are enquiring about just seems to throw away the problem, and say "what feels good for me must be good for all". A fully self-centered utilitarianism.
posted by 0bvious at 4:45 AM on June 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

A. Maybe within the new age literature?

B. believing that self-interest is the best way to make moral decisions because of enlightened self-interest.
I too would argue that it's a less-rigorously-considered branch of Utilitarianism, usually with some new age psychology and metaphysics (in a loose sense of both terms) thrown in. There are definitely contemporary ethicists writing about these issues, although JL Mackie is the only one I can think of off the top of my head. I do know an ethicist who might know; I'll ask her.

C. Out of the new age psychology movement, informed by moral ontologists of the sixties.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:52 AM on June 28, 2020

I thought of Aleister Crowleys Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law, and the Thelemites - more under Defining the thelemite bit of the Wikipedia entry for Thelema (apologies I cannot link!)
posted by eastboundanddown at 8:44 AM on June 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Bertran, thanks for all the helpful leads! I think Jung's psychology was closer to this idea than Freud's, but self-actualizing humanist psychology seems especially right on.

I don't think it's Utilitarianism except maybe as initially described by Hume in the sense that it tends to lead to roughly Utilitarian outcomes. Modern Utilitarianism often describes doing really distasteful things (like murder) because they lead to the greatest good, which I don't feel like this philosophy would encourage.

Aspersioncast, moral ontologists of the sixties sounds like a great lead, but searching that phrase isn't getting me much. Do you have any names or further resources?
posted by lgyre at 9:21 AM on June 28, 2020

That's Adam Smith's invisible hand at work.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:45 PM on June 28, 2020

I would look at self-actualization and also the outgrowth of the Human Potential movement from the concept of self-actualization. Your comment about "pursuit of individual desires absent a specific moral framework" reads as Human Potential to me, the belief in a kind of innate goodness and a soft refusal to examine ethics and human behavior
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 12:33 PM on July 12, 2020

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