Refining the “Amoralist’s Challenge”
Some Opening Thoughts
First, I want to express my constant admiration for how comprehensible yet deeply frustrating I find Jason Lee Byas’ approach to anarchism (something I extend to the Center’s resident radical liberals and adherents to Aristotelianism more generally, more words on that to come). To mirror his repeated praise of the “amoralist’s challenge,” I too greatly appreciate his “moralist challenge” to us on the outskirts; while this framing of our fundamental disagreement by no means captures the full scope of the divergence in our views, this hopefully makes for a more accessible introduction to these tensions for an uninitiated reader. In the interest of filling in what I see to be gaps in his overview of the opposing perspective, I’ll be diving into those less straightforward aspects of Stirner’s approach to moralism in specific, the Abrahamic God and His near-analogues, and fixed ideas more broadly — both for the benefit of future exchange and to clear up popular misconceptions to our general audience.
Stirner, God, and Unique Causes
Before introducing specific features of the present “moralist challenge,” I want to briefly return to Stirner’s own words. I started my last piece with a quote from the first section of the Unique and Its Property, I Have Based My Affair on Nothing, and I want to focus on that passage again here with emphasis on the preceding sentence.
In full, the closing paragraph reads: “The divine is God’s affair; the human cause is ‘humanity’s.’ My affair is neither the divine nor the human; it is not the good, the true, the just, the free, etc., but only my own, and it is not general, but is unique, as I am unique. For me, there is nothing greater than me!” (Stirner 27)
This section is frequently misinterpreted, even by the most devout “Stirnerites.”1 A popular takeaway is that Stirner hates God, hates humanity, and loves himself exclusively — he does literally say “there is nothing greater than me!” after all; this shallow read of the Ego Book as the narcissistic ramblings of a proto-Reddit atheist has been used both to dismiss Egoism in defense of moralism and, in the absolute worst cases, to synthesize his rhetoric with reactionary ideology (“Identity Politics is a spook,” “consent is a fixed idea,” “anti-theism is the only valid Egoist position,” etc.). Like many common assumptions, however, this is a stretch. Though the tone of works like Critics and U&IP is unambiguously assertive and deliberately provocative, Stirner didn’t base his affair on a hatred of things “not-himself” to the exclusion of others, contrary to the implications of “there is nothing greater than me.” In entertaining the legitimacy of “God’s cause,” Stirner makes a distinction between His interest (the divine) and his own (himself) and invites us to recognize what, from his perspective, was abundantly clear: his and God’s causes are distinct, fluid, and independent of each other. To Stirner, God is not-himself, outside the domain of his affair, and His cause is none of his concern. Humanity, the state, and morality aren’t so much objects of hatred as they are subjects to Stirner’s defiant apathy. His answer to the question “what would/should [not-you] do?” isn’t “fuck them, all rules are bad and my rejection of them is good,” but rather “I’m not not-me, I’m me; the affair of not-me isn’t perceptible, nor is it a component of my own, so I really can’t speak much on the matter.”
This, to me, is where moralist criticism misses the mark most severely. Egoism is not the contrarian negation of all things we presently call “morality” solely on the grounds that it’s suboptimal or outside the individual, but is instead an embodied assertion of uniqueness and limitation, a willing recognition of the irreconcilable distance between our own unique cause and not-our-own cause that prevents either from being “general.” The “amoralist challenge,” then, is not merely a pure dismissal of morality; it is better described as a recognition of the moral, the divine, and the human followed by a refusal to grant its cause dominion over one’s own. Life, for the egoist, is an experience to be lived by the alive, not a subject to be litigated by an observer – even when the observer is you, gazing at your own reflection.
“Okay,” the charitable moralist might concede, even if only for the sake of argument, “but what if I volunteer myself to the not-me? If I want to be haunted, are you gonna stop me?”
This, once again, is a point at which many critics and staunch proponents of Stirner’s thought get stuck, tumble over themselves, and cause dear St. Max to perform coffin pirouettes at a rate that could sustain a small power grid. In the interest of brevity, I’ll spare the summary of the common vulgar follow-up and dig right into the ground upon which this question is rooted.
Um… there isn’t one -_-
Without the Ground, Only the Nothing
“Ground,” the objective, legitimate, and ontologically “real” bases for things we generally conceive of as “law,” is, at the most accessible interpretation, capital-U Untouchable. We can’t tell if it’s there or if it’s not, but even if it was it would be of no consequence to us as beings that can’t perceive it, and no expedition to bridge this gap will ever yield a tangible return on the futile investment required to carry it out. If you’re unwilling to accept Stirner’s proposal that the “ground” doesn’t exist at all (which, full disclosure, is a premise I’m thoroughly convinced of), this can serve as a near estimation of the attitudinal “nothingness” we need to embody in order to explore this aspect of the amoralist challenge.
When Egoists label something a phantasm2, they’re rejecting the legitimacy of grounding, the “futile expedition to find Ground” I mentioned earlier, instead thrusting themselves forward into the profound nothingness that remains. In this space we call The Nothing we discover something far more desirable: the moment of non-identity. The restrictive staleness of certainty and stability is now replaced by what could be described as a canvas without borders; it’s not blank nor is it crowded; it’s not comforting nor is it distressful; it does not take nor does it give time; it is not nor is it; it “is” what you, the individual, the amalgamation, the Unique, want it to be. How that gets expressed may provide us, who recognize what we see of the unique person across from us, some guess as to what inner machinations constitute their cause, but we can’t make it “general,” returning once again to Stirner’s original declaration.
Moreover, to say that one can meaningfully “give oneself up to” another cause is not only near-impossible, but, perhaps worse, a non-sequitur. What “self” can you give? There is nothing, no static “you” to sacrificially offer to any superordinate construct. If one’s prerogative is to submit, that cannot be a binding contract because we lack that specific capacity for agential attorney — we are unique, unable to be bound to any cause that attempts to reside on or acquaint us with “ground.” We can’t promise a solid foundation for a builder when we have no clue whether our available supplies are concrete, quicksand, or industrial quantities of Jell-O, now can we? Even in the event we have the right substance, (“concrete” being analogous to the capacity to promise “ourselves” to another cause), we can’t ever be sure such commitments can be fulfilled — a limitation that will only become more pronounced as selfhood, identity, and personhood are greater impacted by impending technological advancements, cultural shifts, and incomprehensible crises to come.
This particular read of Stirner, perhaps in combination with my own relative inexperience participating in formal discourses such as this, makes responding to moral realism a perplexing challenge. It’s not at all trivial to distance oneself from Ground, especially when most of your philosophical commitments rest upon it. Because of this, it’s very tough to truly condemn Jason for, in proper Aristotelian fashion, immediately looking for Ground as he confronts the notion of causes:
Perhaps the Stirnerite1 can concede that your cause imposes limits on itself… But so far, those limits have been minimal: if you want to get to Decatur from Atlanta, you need to go east. To play a song, that’s the song you have to play. This doesn’t really have the sound of morality.
However, those examples were just to establish the general point that we take actions in the service of prior projects, and the aims of those prior projects have authority over those lesser actions. If there were some grand project in service of which you took all your other actions, that project could regulate what you do in a way that would be recognizably moral.
In other words, the task here is to figure out just what your cause really is.
Ground, from what I can discern, is obstructing the following exploration of “causes.” The task laid out here is not to figure out anything, at least not in the way Jason is asking us to do so, because the Ground so important to other similar conceptions of “cause” or adjacent constructs as “self-interest” is absent for the Egoist. To attempt to figure out what a given cause “really is” is an attempt to generalize the unique, to seek out the skeletal structure of a fluid invertebrate. The “is” and “isn’t” of our cause can at best be vaguely gestured towards as a discursive charade, a fun exercise for lay-intellectual reflection and philosophical banter. If the goal is to describe and interact with a world inhabited by real active beings, however, we can’t resign ourselves to the position of the distal self-legislator. Our concern instead resides in the persistent, ongoing process of living; when we divorce ourselves even temporarily from the mission of grounding our fixed ideas in the name of “truth” seeking, we are able to enter the realm of the alive, embracing the fluid, the non-identified, and the imperceptible as we inhabit and create ourselves, our behavioral environment3, and perhaps even some inadvertent realization of what could be described by some as “virtue” (Hell, maybe we’ll even get to Decatur by going West4 — it’s not like the earth is flat, Jason). It is always possible to become distant from this space, to eschew life-as-experienced in pursuit of a “higher” purpose and the litigation of actions, but, in taking this latter path, we reduce liberty to an anhedonic and static concept, a fixed notion of the proper order to which life should adhere. Such a separation between the ongoing act of living and a superordinate project of societal construction is, to this Egoist at least, pointless, at least in the pursuit of what I view to be a necessary condition for anarchy: life being fully lived by the living, reclaimed from all things that restrict the free and ambiguous pursuit thereof.
With all of that hopefully clarified, here remains my challenge to the self-proclaimed moralist: when do we, the alive, get to actually start living, and why isn’t it right now?
- For a multitude of reasons, I find this term inaccurate to my own approach. Stirner’s influence on me, while significant, is far from the exclusive focus of the egoism I practice — a subject I hope to expand on during future contributions to this exchange.
- Assuming, of course, they understand what they’re doing by borrowing Stirner’s language here. Poor approximations abound.
- Borrowing etymologically from the anthropologist Alfred Irving Hallowell’s seminal work, Culture and Experience. While by no means an Egoist, Hallowell’s phenomenological approach and general conclusions are a great accessory to all projects concerned with the concept of the self.
- “Suppose you’re visiting a friend who lives in Decatur, GA. You mistakenly believe that Decatur is just west of Atlanta, but it’s actually to the east. After flying in, you board public transit to reach your friend. You go westbound, but you should have gone eastbound.” – Jason Lee Byas, The Authority of Yourself