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Self-Centered Altruism

When considering ethics a standard problem to address is finding a universal medium which allows us to judge all moral experiences. Bernard Williams advocates a unique position in this respect that questions both Kantian universalism as well as utilitarianism. His suspicion is that neither moral Law nor utility are universal, but rather selfish altruism. More precise, Williams suspects that “what the agent cares about is not so much other people, as himself caring about other people” (quoted in Žižek, Parallax View, p. 47). What Williams means by this is that there is no dividing rift between doing one’s duty and pursuing personal satisfaction as conventionally held. As he puts it, doing one’s Duty often gives the agent satisfaction doing it. Hence, altruistic behavior is at root selfish. Granting Žižek his Hegelian idealism, “the ontological split is not between the One and the Other, but is strictly inherent to the One; it is the split between the One and its empty place of inscription….the split inherent to the One and the explosion of the multiple” (p. 38). Or, simply put, the antagonism is not between two polar opposites (duty and freedom) but a minimal difference internal to the same term.

Doubtless, this assumes that some sort of pathological pleasure is experienced in fulfilling one’s obligations. Absolute devotion, on the other hand, would be a “gesture of total self-renunciation” in which “we sacrifice all (the totality of our life) for nothing… This means that there is no guarantee that our sacrifice will be rewarded, that it will restore Meaning to our life—we have to make a leap of faith which, to an external observer, cannot but look like an act of madness (like Abraham’s readiness to kill Isaac)… (Parallax View, p. 80). If we can ask ourselves “what’s in it for me?” and the answer is “nothing” then we are dealing with absolute devotion. This act of sacrifice, however, is rarer than it may at first appear. If your renunciation is done for a reward, even if it be a deferred one, it ceases to be a great act of self-renunciation. We must, in other words, sacrifice for nothing. It must be an empty gesture with no calculating strategy and no sacrificial economy. Absolute devotion is to give up everything, all that really matters, for nothing. This means that the sacrificial act involves a “leap of faith” in which there is no guarantee of the act even appearing ethical. That is, because even fulfilling one’s moral duty is a reward in itself as we saw above. Most significantly, I think, is Žižek’s argument that when we sacrifice everything for the “Cause-Thing” we end up losing the “Cause-Thing” itself. According to Žižek, “after I have sacrificed everything, my happiness, my honor, my wealth, for the Cause, all of a sudden I realize that I’ve lost the Cause itself—my alienation is thereby redoubled, reflected-into-itself” (p. 83).

This topic on selfish altruism clearly has religious overtones. What is fairly obvious is that persons of faith often make sacrificial gestures of self-renunciation, but in lieu of our discussion above we can see how such acts have clear delimited incentives; viz., investing in eternal rewards. As Marion Grau outlines in Of Divine Economy and following Max Weber, asceticism often resembles the investment strategies of capitalism (p. 67). To put it harshly, quoting Harpham in Ascetic Imperative, “asceticism is capitalism without money.” Otherwise stated, seeking perfection in daily life is motivated from lack just as seeking material wealth is motivated from lack. So while desert ascetics, such as Anthony, clearly shed possessions and finances in order to gradually withdraw from the comforts of civil life, they continued to be businessmen–only in a different economy. As Grau puts it, holy men merely redirect their “keen business sense toward the acquisition of the superior profits of heaven” (p. 69). Sanctified and abject alike, everyone makes investments of desire for some form of gain, whether it be material or spiritual. Granted, holy persons believe their eternal investment has bigger and more permanent returns, but the exchange is economical all the same.

Dealing with the abject

For most, the abject–the despicable, impure, loathsome, defiled–is that which crushes and gags us. The abject is what we balk at, but it is also what we jettison, expel and separate from ourselves . Vomit, feces, blood, the Other. It includes all that infects life with filth and interferes with our routine narcissism. For the pyschoanalytic, it is that which we repress. But what is philosophy’s role in insuring purity? For Julia Kristeva, passing on the lesson of Aristotle, it is a transvaluation by rhythm and song (see the Poetics).

What is involved is a purification of body and soul by means of a heterogeneous and complex circuit, going from “bile” to “fire,” from “manly warmth” to the “enthusiasm” of the “mind.” Rhythm and song hence arouse the impure, the other of mind, the passionate-corporeal-sexual-virile, but they harmonize it, arrange it differently than the wise man’s knowledge does. They thus soothe frenzied outbursts… (Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, 28)

Kristeva is not the most easily read I will be the first to admit, but the content of the work makes up for the obscurity. Kristeva’s “poetic purification“, so to speak, is not an act of ridding the impure of the self–an impossible task that nonetheless makes up culture–but rather of rearranging it in repetition and harmonizing the abject through refrain. In other words, difference does not constitute lack but can be unified in a greater whole from its “original impurity.” It is re-evaluated a second time. Her analogy of music is especially poignant in that individual notes in a melody, while aberrant stand-alone, form a “heterogeneous and complex circuit” that smooths the frenzied. The cathartic process of Kristeva is certainly more harmonious wisdom than the run-of-the-mill abject phobic.