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We might as well make this an ongoing series as well.

Let’s stop and think about why some of the Occupy Wall Streeters are upset. They are upset that working hard and getting an education has not produced a “fair” return for them, and that some folks in society are getting an “unfair” return. Fine, I have no problem with that interpretation. Life is not fair perhaps, but I have no issues with that. But what I DO have a serious issue with is the implicit hypocrisy in the complaining here. It seems to me that the OWS-ers that make this complain wish to work hard at doing whatever the heck they want and they are upset that they cannot make a living by spending a life in the Peace Corps or making Youtube videos.

But why should they be upset? Isn’t their motivation entirely selfish and individualist? The irony of course is that the reason the are not able to make a living as professional checker players or in the Peace Corp is that “society” actually does not value those things so much. In other words, one of the most basic tenets of selfish, market capitalism is biting them in the arse. In other words, our private capabilities are predicated on social/public evaluations of what is and is not valuable. It seems to me that objections to this tenet are akin to saying that society does not matter, that their own selfish idea about what is valuable matters. But isn’t that precisely the opposite claim they are trying to make?

Does it make me selfish if other people happen to value the things I have chosen to do with my life? Does it make me unselfish if not? I don’t think so, but that is what it seems the complaints are all about.

9 Responses to “Selfishness, Individualism and Nihilism”

  1. RIT_Rich says:

    Hippies working at AmeriCorps get food stamps. This is pretty disturbing to me and makes me wonder how many food-stamp recipients which get counted in the Welfare rolls, are lazy college school hippies. I say this from experience since a friend of mine, completing an MBA no less, with parents whose combined income was pretty close to the 1%…worked at AmeriCorps and gladly took their food stamps to live on.

    You’re right. This is the definition of selfishness.

  2. Rod says:

    It’s a cornerstone of positivism that people tend to seek their rational self-interest, and that’s what makes the combination of capitalism and individual liberty so great. Yes, I have read lots of Ayn Rand, including The Virtue of Selfishness (a title she picked to sell books and to get under the skin of her critics), but rational self-interest does not exclude charity and a broader range of things that satisfy one’s self-interest. One can be a Christian or another kind of believer in God and still look after the interests of one’s self and one’s family first.

    Positivism sure beats idealism, especially any kind of idealism that leads a way into collectivism.

  3. Rod says:

    I’m not sure where nihilism fits in here. My old college roommate became a card-carrying communist after he joined the philosophy department at the University of Florida. The whole department were ethical vegetarians, as opposed to ethical veterinarians. In order to get tenure, my roomie sold out his prior conservative political convictions and became one of the put-pants-on-animals folks. He also was a follower of that great philosophical mind, Dick Gregory, who himself was a Fruititarian. Fruititarians won’t pick fruits and vegetables while the non-meats are still alive; they wait until the apples fall on the ground and sever their connection to the apple tree. I guess the apple tree has rights just like you and me. All of this is a lot easier to understand after a few hits on the bong.

    For me, nihilism is one of those diversions of thought that are only possible when one is not burdened with more than nine classes a week and when one’s papers and tests are corrected by student assistants. After a few rounds of drinks, it’s easy to spend a whole afternoon discussing how everything is one big illusion. What comes to mind here is a scene in Animal House where the students all get stoned with their professor, played by Donald Sutherland. “And if our solar system is just a part of a giant solar system, then every atom is a tiny solar system….” People with real jobs don’t spend much time with nihilism, especially in this economy.

  4. Harry says:

    Rod beat me to the punch about nihilism, something you feel after smoking two packs of Galouises and drinking a quart of absinthe. Then you cut off an ear.

    Wintercow, the Energizer Bunny, who teaches hundreds of students who show up for his lectures and occupy his afternoons with office hours, has nothing to apologize for whatever.

    Selfishness is a vice when it comes to those we love, and to the poor among us, but those who pursue good lives should not be overburdened by accusations from other selfish and lazy folk who wish us to bring their Bon Bons to them in bed. I hope the virtuous WC cheers up in time for Christmas, which he will after he hears Carol to the King, under the direction of Doug Mears.

  5. jb says:

    RIT Rich: So let me get this straight. Apparently we’ve come to the point where we live in a nation so rich we’ve decided we should subsidize the self-flagellation of rich kids ashamed of their wealth.

    Hurray, we’ve arrived!

  6. RIT_Rich says:

    JB, I forgot to tell you that his parents were both public school teachers in Westchester NY, where teachers routinely make 6 figures.

    Yes we have arrived.

  7. RIT_Rich says:

    Rod, isn’t Fruitarianism part of the job requirement of being in a Philosophy department? What I find most amusing about those people is what caricatures they are. You can literally fit them all in one mold. One would think that people who make “thought” their profession, would produce some sort of variation. Yet they produce caricatures. That’s “selfishness” in a way; you are willing to let go of original thought in order to fit into that mold.

    Back in the day we used to go to this bar nearby RIT. Frequently, the bar was also shared with our resident philosophy professor (and at RIT there are only about 2-3 of them). Picture this; Swedish guy, long ponytail, goatee, patches under his elbow, drives an early 70s Volvo with lots of stickers proclaiming world peace, sipping a glass of wine, surrounded by about 6-7 teenage girls…discussing something that must have been profoundly deep…like world peace. Donald Sutherland could have portrayed him perfectly. Both our groups would sit at that bar for 4-5 hours straight…them talking about world peace…us talking about Milton Friedman and Clayton Christensen.

  8. Brent says:

    This is excellent stuff. I remember thinking, when taught, while in the military, to always put on MY gas mask first, that this was sort of the perfect example of an atitude of “me first.” Then they explained that, if something happened, I was no good to anyone dead. Likewise here, if you do not do what you do- then you aren’t really any good to anyone else. If you have nothing- then how can you be unselfish and give to others. Does that make sense? Or might I have taken one too many hits?

  9. jb says:

    This post is worth re-reading and re-contemplating while I am out running (that’s when I often figure things out — the creative juices really flow, at least for me!). I really want to file this in the memory banks next time I encounter a lefty celebrating the OWS events. They are ticked off because that darned old society doesn’t value what they think it ought to value, and it does value the things they disdain.

    That’s it, bottom line, that is what they are protesting.

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