On March 31, 2018, Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman of the U.S. Transhumanist Party, was interviewed by Nikola Danaylov, a.k.a. Socrates, of Singularity.FM. A synopsis, audio download, and embedded video of the interview can be found on Singularity.FM here. You can also watch the YouTube video recording of the interview here.
Apparently this interview, nearly three hours in length, broke the record for the length of Nikola Danaylov’s in-depth, wide-ranging conversations on philosophy, politics, and the future. The interview covered both some of Mr. Stolyarov’s personal work and ideas, such as the illustrated children’s book Death is Wrong, as well as the efforts and aspirations of the U.S. Transhumanist Party. The conversation also delved into such subjects as the definition of transhumanism, intelligence and morality, the technological Singularity or Singularities, health and fitness, and even cats. Everyone will find something of interest in this wide-ranging discussion.
Visit the U.S. Transhumanist Party website at http://transhumanist-party.org. To help advance the goals of the U.S. Transhumanist Party, as described in Mr. Stolyarov’s comments during the interview, become a member for free, no matter where you reside. Click here to fill out a membership application.
Adam Smith’s appreciation for the Stoic emperor’s writings is evident in his own work.
Who Was Marcus Aurelius?
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was the last of the five good emperors of Rome. He was born in 121 AD, reluctantly became emperor in 161 AD, and reigned for 19 years until his death in 180 AD. His reign was punctuated by numerous wars during which he repelled Rome’s enemies in long campaigns. When not at the frontiers of the empire, he spent his time administering the law, focusing his attention particularly on the guardianship of orphans, the manumission of slaves, and choosing city councilors.
Lord Acton memorably stated, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts, absolutely.” Lord Acton’s aphorism is, for the most part, true, but there was one exception to it in history: Marcus Aurelius. He famously had a keen interest in philosophy. Perpetually practicing self-control and moderation in all aspects of his life, he was the closest any person ever came to embodying Plato’s ideal of the “philosopher king.”
While on the front lines of his campaign against the German tribes, Marcus Aurelius wrote his own personal diary. This was originally titled Ta Eis Heauton, meaning To Himself in Greek. Subsequent translations of the text changed the title numerous times; we now know it as Meditations. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes his personal views on the Stoic philosophy.
He focuses heavily on the themes of finding one’s place in the cosmic balance of the universe, the importance of analyzing your actions, and being a good person. Asserting that one should be judged first and foremost on their actions, he decisively urged us to “waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Meditations is a masterpiece of Stoic philosophy, brimming with insightful, emotional and, most importantly, useful observations on morality and the human condition.
Who Was Adam Smith?
Adam Smith was a Scottish moral philosopher who is renowned as one of the first modern economists. He was born in 1723 in Kirkcaldy and died in 1790. He is famous for his two seminal works, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His work was massively influential on classical liberal thought as he was one of the first defenders of the free market.
In The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith articulated a persuasive case for the efficacy and morality of a free-market commercial society. Ludwig Von Mises, speaking about Smith’s works, wrote that they “presented the essence of the ideology of freedom, individualism, and prosperity, with admirable clarity and in an impeccable literary form.” Classical liberal economist Milton Friedman often wore a tie bearing a portrait of Adam Smith to formal events.
Adam Smith’s Readings of Marcus Aurelius
These two figures lived in vastly different times, under vastly different circumstances, so how did Marcus Aurelius ever influence Adam Smith? The answer lies in the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.
Stoicism was one of the three major schools of Greek philosophy in the ancient world. It was founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC by a man named Zeno of Citium. The name “Stoic” was given to the followers of Zeno, who used to congregate to hear him teach at the Athenian Agora, under the colonnade known as the Stoa Poikile. Over time, Stoicism expanded and developed sophisticated views on metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.
While Stoicism posits numerous views on a huge variety of topics, its most interesting and relevant observations are on ethics. The Stoics were concerned with perfecting self-control which allowed for virtuous behavior. They believed that, through self-control, one could be free of negative emotions and passions which blinded objective judgment.
With a peaceful mind, the Stoics thought, people could live according to the universal reason of the world and practice a virtuous life. Marcus Aurelius described the ideal Stoic life in book three of Meditations, writing, “peace of mind in the evident conformity of your actions to the laws of reason, and peace of mind under the visitations of a destiny you cannot control.”
Adam Smith was educated at the University of Glasgow where he studied under Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson was a Scottish intellectual and a leading representative of the Christian Stoicism movement during the Scottish Enlightenment. He hosted private noontime classes on Stoicism which Adam Smith often attended. Smith’s preference for Marcus Aurelius was encouraged by Hutcheson, who published his own translation of Meditations.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith referred to Marcus Aurelius as “the mild, the humane, the benevolent Antoninus,” demonstrating his deep admiration for the Stoic emperor. Marcus Aurelius influenced Adam Smith in three main areas: the idea of an inner conscience; the importance of self-control; and in his famous analogy of the “Invisible Hand.”
Our Inner Conscience
Both Marcus Aurelius and Adam Smith believed that the key to understanding morality was through self-scrutiny and sympathy for others.
Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations in the form of a self-reflective dialogue with his inner self. He thought that moral conviction lay within “the very god that is seated in you, bringing your impulses under its control, scrutinizing your thoughts.’’ He interchangeably referred to this inner god as the soul or the helmsman and believed that it is a voice within you that attempts to sway you from immoral doings; we now call this a conscience.
Similarly, Smith emphasized the role of people’s innermost thoughts. A key aspect of Smith’s moral philosophy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is the impartial spectator. Smith theorized that morality could be understood through the medium of sympathy. He thought that before people acted they ought to look for the approval of an impartial spectator.
“But though man has… been rendered the immediate judge of mankind, he has been rendered so only in the first instance; and an appeal lies from his sentence to a much higher tribunal, to the tribunal of their own consciences, to that of the supposed impartial and well-informed spectator, to that of the man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of their conduct.”
The Importance of Self-Control
The Stoics listed four “cardinal virtues” — wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance — for which they held great reverence. These were believed to be expressions and manifestations of a single indivisible virtue. Smith used slightly different names, but he endorsed the same set of virtues and the idea that they were all facets of one indivisible virtue.
Smith and Aurelius had a mutual appreciation for the virtue of self-control. They both believed in an impartial, self-scrutinizing conscience that guided morality: while Aurelius called it the God Within, Smith called it the Impartial Spectator.
Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” The primacy of self-control is intrinsic to the Stoic philosophy. In a similar vein of thought, Smith writes that “self-command is not only itself a great virtue, but from all other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre.” This respect for self-control was encouraged and cultivated by Smith’s Impartial Spectator and Marcus Aurelius’ Inner God.
The Invisible Hand
Marcus Aurelius argues that we must work together in common cooperation in order to improve humanity as a whole. He argues that we “were born to work together.” Aurelius stressed the vital nature of human cooperation.
“Constantly think of the universe as one living creature, embracing one being and soul; how all is absorbed into the one consciousness of this living creature; how it compasses all things with a single purpose, and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture.”
In The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith’s defense of the free market is expressed through the analogy of the Invisible Hand. Smith argues that in a society of free exchange and free markets, people must sympathize with one another and understand how best to benefit their fellow man in order to better their own situation.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”
The transaction will not occur unless the parties involved demonstrate their sympathy for the interests of others. In the analogy of the Invisible Hand, Smith argues that we must think of others before ourselves and consider how best to serve our fellow neighbor. This famous passage bears a striking resemblance to the previous passage by Marcus Aurelius who also argues for the importance of conscious cooperation among people for the common good.
We Are All Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
A Roman emperor seems like an unlikely intellectual influence for a classical liberal thinker such as Adam Smith. Upon closer inspection, however, Smith and Aurelius are like two peas in a pod: both men believed that the root of morality lies within the self-scrutiny of one’s conscience; both believe in the primacy of the virtue of self-control; and both believe in the importance of sympathy as a tool for cooperation and the betterment of civilized society.
No thinker is entirely alone in their pursuit of truth. All people discover truth by building upon the previous discoveries of others. This explains how an emperor came to influence so strongly an Enlightenment moral philosopher and economist more than a thousand years after he had passed away. I believe that the best expression of the development of such ideas was written by a medieval philosopher and bishop, John of Salisbury, who spoke of the wisdom of Bernard of Chartres:
“He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”
We are all dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants in the pursuit of the system of natural liberty and prosperity that Adam Smith sought during his lifetime.
Paul Meany is a student at Trinity College Dublin studying Ancient and Medieval History and Culture.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author. Read the original article.
The gunman who attempted to slay Republican Congressmen at a baseball practice had a Facebook feed. Before it was deleted, everyone could read his vitriolic attacks on the rich, his denunciations of capitalism and corporate culture, his calls for high taxes and wealth redistribution, and, of course, his push for Bernie Sanders to be the ruler of us all. We all know the litany of gripes that drove him.
And yet, when the folks at National Public Radio were reflecting on his motives, the hosts declined to speculate. They feigned to be completely mystified how a happy, charming, good soul such as this could have turned to violence. Had the tables been turned – say an alt-right agitator had shot up a civil-rights protest – there would have been no question about the motivation.
One reason for the failure to connect the dots here concerns the loss of awareness of the destructive effects of envy. When was the last time you heard a sermon against it or observed a media figure casually recognizing its evils? Condemnation of envy as a motivating force for the destruction of life and property has nearly entirely vanished from the culture. This is probably because so much of modern public policy is based on it and depends on encouraging it. What was once one of the seven “deadly sins” is now a baked-in part of our public ethos.
What Is Envy?
Let’s return to the classic understanding of what envy is. It is part of the general vice of looking negatively upon the success of others. It is different from mere covetousness. To be covetous means to desire something that is not yours to have. It is also different from jealousy, which means to look upon the success of others and wish it were yours too. Jealousy can lead to emulation and that can be good. It is not the same as zeal, which is to feel inspiration from the good fortune of another to adapt your own life to also experience good fortune. (This commentary is taken straight from St. Thomas Aquinas.)
Envy is distinct from all these. It observes the excellence of others and desires it to stop. It sees the fortune of another and aspires to punish it. Envy is actively destructive of another’s successes as an end in itself. It is not even the case that the realization of envy brings happiness to the person who wants to harm others. It merely achieves the goal of satisfying the anger you feel when looking upon the happiness of others. It tears down. It harms. It hurts. It crushes, smashes, and kills. It begins with resentment against others’ achievements and ends in the infliction of personal harm.
To review, you notice a nice house. To say, “that very house should be mine,” is to be covetous. To say, “I want to buy a house like that,” stems from jealousy which leads to emulation. To say, “I aspire to a life in which I can afford a house like that,” is zeal. Envy is to say: “I want to burn down that house.”
Envy is a ubiquitous problem but it is not felt by everyone. Let’s say you have a person with a naturally aspirational personality. He or she looks at life as a trajectory of opportunities for success; it is a matter of will, intelligence, and creativity, and he or she believes in all those things. There is no room for envy in this person’s heart. The success of another serves as inspiration and drive to perform, not tear down.
But let’s say another person has no such outlook. He or she imagines himself to be intellectually limited, unskilled, uncreative, bound by a restricted personality or a lack of will. In this case, life seems like a series of routines not to be disrupted, and begins to resent others who pass him or her by in the struggle to achieve. This person is ripe for feelings of envy, that is, the desire to harm others who perform better than their peers.
Every successful person has to deal with the problem of encountering the envy of others. You might begin your career thinking that your excellence will be rewarded. You find that it sometimes or often is. At the same time, it incites envy as well, and you have to deal with knives in the back, hidden attempts to undermine you, plots and conspiracies to stop you from advancing. It is a sad fact but a reality every successful person has to deal with.
Medieval mythology described envy as the “green-eyed monster” because it looks at any sign of wealth with an aspiration to bring an end to it. The legend of the “evil eye” goes back to antiquity and denotes the profound fear all people have felt concerning envy. In Judaism, the rabbis taught to favor the “good eye” which calls for us to rejoice in the fortune of others, while the evil eye is the opposite impulse.
The world’s most famous anti-envy charm comes from Turkey, Greece, and Egypt. It is the Nazar, a glass eye in blue, black, and white. The idea of this charm is that it looks back at the evil eye and neutralizes its influence in your life. So far as anyone knows, it originated in the 15th and 16th century, which is not a surprise given the rising wealth of the Ottoman Empire. The merchants felt envy, and, as wealth grew, so did everyone else. This culture learned that popular hatred of wealth was something to fear, because it truly threatened the basis of people’s livelihoods. Even today, you see the Nazar in the cars, homes, boats, and keychains of average people. Even the Istanbul airport features a huge Nazar above the baggage claim.
The Politics of Envy
At some point in the 20th century, we normalized envy as a political idea. Down with the rich! His success must be punished! The 1% must be pillaged! Redistribute the wealth! All these ideas trace to an ancient idea that was widely seen not as a virtue or a good motivation but rather a socially destructive sin.
Indeed there is a burgeoning academic literature that seeks to rehabilitate envy as a motivator (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). It leads people to oppose unfairness and inequality, and hence builds the kinds of political institutions that many progressives favor. To be sure, there are good reasons to be upset and yell at the immorality of unjustly acquired wealth, but keep in mind that the problem here is not the wealth as such but the means of acquisition.
Real envy makes no distinction: it is unhinged loathing that ends in destruction. It seems like an implausible thing to do, take a sin and convert it to a political virtue. But there is a hidden truth here that people are unable to face: modern political institutions are in fact built on an ancient vice, institutionalized and unleashed.
Envy can seem relatively benign when it is embodied in political institutions. This is why Bernie Sanders can imagine himself as a preacher not of violence but of peace. “I am sickened by this despicable act,” he said of the gunman on the baseball field. “Let me be as clear as I can be. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society….”
But what about whipping up masses of people who shout for the violence of the central government to loot and pillage people merely because they are wealthy? Some forms of violence are apparently acceptable.
If you teach with every speech and every article to sow hatred and encourage people to blame others’ successes for their own plight, you are playing with fire. Sometimes the seemingly benign veneer is torn off and this ends in bloodshed.
Both sides of the great ideological splits of our time are rooted in vices. While we are quick to recognize the evil of race and religious hatred, we do not like to think about the insidious effects unleashed by hatred of wealth and success. Maybe it is time for the Nazar to make its way from the Ottoman region to our own. We need some protection from the evil eye that modern politics is working daily to unleash.
Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Content for the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also Chief Liberty Officer and founder of Liberty.me, Distinguished Honorary Member of Mises Brazil, research fellow at the Acton Institute, policy adviser of the Heartland Institute, founder of the CryptoCurrency Conference, member of the editorial board of the Molinari Review, an advisor to the blockchain application builder Factom, and author of five books. He has written 150 introductions to books and many thousands of articles appearing in the scholarly and popular press.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author. Read the original article.
Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman of the U.S. Transhumanist Party and Chief Executive of the Nevada Transhumanist Party, articulates the view that war is not acceptable by any parties, against any parties, for any stated or actual justification.
This presentation was delivered to the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) Chapter at University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), on April 24, 2017.
Read “Antipolemus, or, the Plea of Reason, Religion, and Humanity against War” by Desiderius Erasmus.
Read the Wikipedia page on the Free Syrian Army, in particular the section entitled “Allegations of war crimes against FSA-affiliated groups”, here.
Become a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party for free here.
Two excellent recent editorials highlight the unprecedented danger that Donald Trump poses to liberty and basic human decency in America.
Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, writes of how Donald Trump has brought Soviet-Style politics, particularly the sweeping use of the Big Lie, to the United States. (“Trump Through Russian Eyes”. Project Syndicate. September 27, 2016)
Indeed, from my perspective, many of the nastiest and most perverse features of Russian politics now seem present in the United States as well. The Big Lie – invented in Nazi Germany, perfected in the Soviet Union, and wielded expertly by Russian President Vladimir Putin – is today a core component of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
So far, Trump has been allowed to get away with his lies. The news media have largely been what Lenin called ‘useful idiots,’ so eager to use Trump to boost their own ratings that they did not notice or care that they were also boosting his. No surprise, then, that an emboldened Trump now delivers lies of ever more breathtaking audacity.
Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen likens Donald Trump to Gilgamesh – and not in a flattering manner. (“Donald Trump is a walking, talking example of the tyrannical soul”. The Washington Post. October 8, 2016.) In the early “Epic of Gilgamesh”, the king Gilgamesh (before he journeys on his quest to obtain eternal life) is an arbitrary, capricious tyrant with no regard for any other individuals’ rights or for basic human dignity and decency. Only when Gilgamesh realizes that death is a fundamental problem affecting everyone (him, too), is he impelled away from tyranny and toward wisdom.
But it is too much to hope that Trump would all of a sudden turn from a populist demagogue and would-be tyrant into a life-extension supporter. Instead, Trump should be recognized as completely devoid of moral character, and a completely lost cause for anyone who thought that he might somehow magically transform himself into a reasonable person.
It is time to break free from the spell of the Big Lie and universally denounce Trump for the moral monster he is. All people of good moral character must stand against Trump. Support anyone else you wish (Libertarian, Democrat, Green, Transhumanist, McMullin, none of the above) – but express the conviction that a decent, humane society should not allow such an unseemly, tyrannical brute as Trump to have any degree of power.
This post may be freely reproduced using the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 License, which requires that credit be given to the author, G. Stolyarov II. Find out about Mr. Stolyarov here.
Generosity Is an Investment in Human Capital
All my students starved to death. Again.
Here’s what they learned the hard way: generosity today can be a way of saving for tomorrow.
They were survivors of a plane crash on a desert island. They knew they’d be trapped there for months and that the only food would be the large but elusive fish in the sea.
When one of my students managed to catch a fish, he ate as much as he could, then stored the rest for himself under some rocks near the beach.
Other students, less successful as fishermen, starved to death promptly.
Soon, the initially successful fisherman found himself alone on the island. With no refrigeration, the food he’d stashed rotted away. And when he ventured out fishing again, he was unlucky and got stung by a deadly jellyfish.
With no one left to take care of him, he, too, perished.
Every year, I play this game with my students. We use a big square of desks to represent our island, pennies to represent fast-decaying fish fillets, and dice to randomize the fishers’ success or failure. (If a student decides not to fish, he has no chance to catch food but also no chance of encountering the dreaded jellyfish.)
We play this game while studying the famous Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers. Until the colonial encroachments of the 20th century, most Ju/’hoansi lived in small, nomadic groups in the Kalahari desert, the men hunting with bows and arrows and the women collecting nuts, berries, and roots with digging sticks and carrier sashes.
Every year, in the discussions that follow our brief reading on this culture, my students remark with amazement that whenever a Ju/’hoan man or woman finds food, he or she shares it widely with the community.
This behavior seems to be an important part of why Richard B. Lee, the most prominent anthropologist in the study of the Ju/’hoansi, describes them as “primitive communists” in the Marxian sense. And many of my students each year seem to get the idea that the Ju/’hoansi share their food so freely with each other because they are in some way more charitable, more natural, or otherwise more moral than us.
Sometimes, a student remarks, “That’s like socialism, right?”
So I like to play this little starvation game to disabuse my students of their romantic notions about communist noble savages in the African wilderness.
What, I ask, would happen if a bunch of greedy, selfish people like us found themselves in the same economic situation the Ju/’hoansi face?
The Economic Constraints of Foraging Life
Nomadic foragers like the Ju/’hoansi have unreliable “incomes” in terms of the food they find from day to day and week to week.
They are often masterful trackers and foragers. But, no matter how competent you are, when you pursue a giraffe on foot with a bow and arrow, sometimes the giraffe gets away.
Furthermore, it’s difficult for nomadic foragers to store food or other forms of material wealth. In fact, the Ju/’hoansi are even less inclined to store food than many other nomadic foragers. Perhaps this is because, while they can dry meat to last a couple of months, they also know a sudden rainstorm could ruin their savings. And because they travel repeatedly over the year to new water holes and food sources, as Lee says, “it would be sheer folly to amass more goods than can be carried along when the group moves.”
So if one were to ask a Ju/’hoan man in the morning what he’s going to eat that night, he could honestly respond, “I don’t know; I haven’t caught it yet.”
Cultural Heritage and Human Survival
Every year, in the game with my students, one of two things happens:
- Successful fishermen imitate the Ju/’hoansi. They give away their excess food freely, starting with their friends or closest neighbors at the game table.
- The students starve to death en masse.
My students tend to go into this game with an idealistic view of the Ju/’hoansi as selfless, altruistic people.
They tend to finish the game realizing that, even if you were the greediest, most selfish nomadic forager in the world, your best move would still be to share food with your neighbors.
Since nomadic foragers have a difficult time storing physical capital, especially food, their response all around the world, in culture after culture, is to promptly turn it into human capital by giving it to friends, relatives, and neighbors.
Like my students, Ju/’hoansi men and women are tempted to hoard their own wealth. Indeed, Ju/’hoansi elders often lament that they have given generously all their lives and would now like to keep just a little for themselves.
But the Ju/’hoansi also have a massive corpus of gift-exchange rituals, conversational habits, and even stock jokes that they use to bolster their own patience and to bring hoarders peacefully into line. These behaviors represent the heritage of thousands of years of spontaneous-order cultural development under economic conditions in which short-run greed is tantamount to stupidity.
What makes the Ju/’hoansi seem selfless, or communistic, or morally superior to us is their age-old cultural adaptation to the fact that, for each individual in their situation, the best strategy to save for the future is to share widely in the present.
Culture and Markets
In the very different economic and technological circumstances of the industrialized West, we have our own roundabout methods by which our selfish desires lead to social prosperity. In markets, each of us can still provide best for his or her own future by helping others — especially strangers — for the right price.
Would this same system work for hunter-gatherers?
If a group of 19th-century Ju/’hoansi equipped with digging sticks and bows and arrows had tried the ethics of the modern market for themselves, many might have starved to death before they recognized their error and began to recreate a culture more appropriate to their own ecology and technology.
But what works for the Ju/’hoansi would be devastating for us. If we today, in a market society made up largely of strangers, attempted to practice the ethics of profligate sharing and meek humility — or even worse, to enforce such ethics on noncompliant others through government policies — we would drive our whole society into chaos and penury.
The Ju/’hoansi’s strategy works only for people in the Ju/’hoansi’s situation.
Our own great wealth and our own social order are built on savings and investment — and on using our resources to benefit strangers through market exchange.
Mike Reid is a publishing consultant at InvisibleOrder.com and the publications impresario at Liberty.me. He also teaches anthropology at the University of Winnipeg. Mike lives in Manitoba with his wife and two children.
This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.
“Dear Santa,” begins an Internet meme that’s been making the rounds, accompanied by some innocent-looking drawing of a small child or a woman decorating a tree, “I’m writing to tell you I’ve been naughty and it was worth it, you fat, judgmental bastard.”
Fair enough, I say. Who died and made Jolly Old Saint Nick the arbiter of all things good and bad, anyway? And frankly, the extensive surveillance that’s he’s gotta have going on 24/7, 365 days a year, is more than a little bit creepy.
But if I reject the authority of the guy in red to tell me what to do, does that mean I can do whatever I please? Just gather as many resources and as much power over my fellows as I can, by whatever means I choose, fair or foul, even becoming top ape of the tribe if possible?
Such a life, no matter where you end up in the pecking order, is frankly impoverished. I don’t have anything against material riches per se, but we humans are not merely animals; we are rational animals. This doesn’t mean we are always or automatically rational, but rather that we have the ability to reason instead of being swept along exclusively by impulse and instinct.
Yet reason is not merely a tool, our particular means of getting what we need to survive, akin to another animal’s claws or teeth or brute strength. It is that, but it is also much more. Having the faculty of reason, we also have a psychological need to use it not only to better our lives, but to determine what constitutes a good life. It may be going too far to say that the unexamined life is not worth living at all, but the unexamined life is surely less than optimally satisfying.
So, what makes a good life? Physical pleasure is one good thing, to be sure, but only one, and its pursuit can distract us from the more subtle and deeper satisfactions of being human. Acquiring knowledge and learning skills, making and appreciating art, and cultivating relationships with others all take us beyond the simple pleasures we have in common with the beasts.
Even this does not quite capture what it means to live a fully human life, though, because it ignores the issue of dealing with others. Given that other human beings, like me, tend to want pleasure and knowledge and art and relationships, I am more likely to get these good things for myself if I treat other people with respect, cooperating and trading with them. To say the same thing another way, there are instrumental reasons for acting in an ethical manner in one’s dealings with other people.
These reasons do carry a certain weight. But it’s conceivable that one could lie, cheat, manipulate, and force others to give one what one wants, or some close enough facsimile, especially if one is smarter or stronger or richer or otherwise more resourceful than the norm. Are there any deeper reasons, besides the instrumental ones, not to trample the rights of others if one has a fairly good chance of getting away with it?
The answer, of course, is yes. For one thing, like most humans, I care about other people and their interests. Admittedly I don’t care equally about all 7.3 billion of you. Some of you, I don’t even know. Still, I don’t want to do you harm if I can avoid it—and lying to you, cheating you, manipulating you, or initiating force against you are themselves harms, however I may try to disguise this fact and keep anyone, myself included, from recognizing it.
And even more fundamentally, from a certain perspective, it’s also a matter of self-respect. Using deception, manipulation, or force to get what I want from other human beings—instead of treating them as the rational animals they are, with interests and goals and plans of their own—is quite simply beneath me. Respecting others’ rights is intrinsically valuable to me because of what it does to me if I violate them: I become less fully human.¹ I lose face with myself, and all of my pleasures become shadows of themselves: sour when they should be sweet; pale instead of bright and bold; a little out of tune.
Living a fully human life does not mean foregoing the animal pleasures. It does not mean sacrificing your interests to those of others. But it does mean striving to live a rational life, which implies living with honour and recognizing the basic humanity of your fellow human beings—whether or not some dude at the North Pole, or anywhere else, is watching.
1. This idea, and indeed the inspiration for the present short article, is from the second half of Roderick T. Long’s “Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand,” Objectivist Studies, No. 3, The Atlas Society, 2000, p. 51: “To violate the rights of others, then, is to lessen one’s own humanity.”
Note by Mr. Stolyarov: On May 2, 2015, a hot spring day in Roseville, California, Wendy Stolyarov and I visited Roen Horn of the Eternal Life Fan Club and had a lengthy discussion with him on a wide variety of subjects: life extension, our illustrated children’s book Death is Wrong, healthcare policy, criminal punishment, and the political prospects of the Transhumanist Party and third parties in general. This was Roen’s third interview with us (watch the first and second interviews as well), and his skillfully edited recording offers a glimpse into its best segments. This conversation occurred approximately four months before Wendy and I took the step to found the Nevada Transhumanist Party, but my comments in this interview are a good example of the evolution of my thinking in this direction, as I was already inclined toward endorsing Zoltan Istvan’s 2016 Presidential run.
Watch the interview here.
Join the Nevada Transhumanist Party here.
It started with the Pope. In his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, he singled out air conditioning as a particularly good example of wasteful habits and excessive consumption that overcome our better natures:
People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning.
Now, it seems to be open season on air conditioning. From a raging Facebook debate over an article that claims that air conditioning is an oppressive tool of the patriarchy to an article in the Washington Post that calls the American use of air conditioning an “addiction” and compares it unfavorably to the European willingness to sweat through the heat of summer, air conditioning is under attack. So I want to defend it.
Understand that when I defend air conditioning, I do so as something of a reluctant proponent. I grew up in the Midwest, and I have always loved sitting on the screened-in porch, rocking on the porch swing, drinking a glass of something cold. I worked in Key West during the summer after my sophomore year of college, lived in an apartment with no air conditioning, and discovered the enormous value of ceiling fans. A lazy, hot summer day can be a real pleasure.
However, let’s not kid ourselves. There were frequent nights in my childhood when it was just too hot to sleep, and the entire family would hunker down in the one air-conditioned room of the house — my father’s attic study — to cool off at night. When we moved from that house to a place that had central air, none of us complained.
And after my recent article on home canning, my friend Kathryn wrote to say,
When I was growing up in the Deep South, everybody I knew had a garden, shelled beans and peas, and canned. It could have been an Olympic event. What I remember most — besides how good the food was — is how hot it was, all those hours spent over huge pots of boiling something or other on the stove in a house with no air conditioning.
There’s a lot to be said for being able to cook in comfort and to enjoy the screened-in porch by choice rather than necessity. Making your family more comfortable is one of the great advantages of an increasingly wealthy society, after all.
So when I read that the US Department of Energy says that you can save about 11 percent on your electric bill by raising the thermostat from 72 to 77 degrees, mostly I want to invite the Department of Energy to come over to my 1929 bungalow and see if they can get any sleep in my refinished attic bedroom when the thermostat is set to 77 degrees, but the room temperature is a cozy 80-something.
And when I read Petula Dvorak arguing that air conditioning is a tool of sexism because “all these women [are freezing] who actually dress for the season — linens, sundresses, flowy silk shirts, short-sleeve tops — changing their wardrobes to fit the sweltering temperatures around them. … And then there are the men, stalwart in their business armor, manipulating their environment for their own comfort, heaven forbid they make any adjustments in what they wear,” mostly I want to ask her if she’s read the dress codes for most professional offices. In my office, women can wear sleeveless tops and open-toed shoes in the summer. Men have to wear a jacket and tie. Air conditioning isn’t sexist. Modern dress codes very well might be.
But arguments based on nostalgia or gender are mostly easily dismissed. Moral arguments, like those made by Pope Francis or by those who are concerned about the environmental and energy impact of air conditioning, are more serious and require real attention.
Is it immoral to use air conditioning?
Pope Francis certainly suggests it is. And the article in the Washington Post that compares US and European air conditioning use agrees, suggesting that the United States prefers the short-term benefits of air conditioning over the long-term dangers of potential global warming — and that our air conditioning use “will make it harder for the US to ask other countries to continue to abstain from using it to save energy.” We are meant to be deeply concerned about the global environmental impact as countries like India, Indonesia, and Brazil become wealthy enough to afford widespread air conditioning. We are meant to set a good example.
But two months before the Washington Post worried that the United States has made it difficult to persuade India not to use air conditioning, 2,500 Indians died in one of the worst heat waves in the country’s history. This June, 780 people died in a four-day heat wave in Karachi, Pakistan. And in 2003, a heat wave that spanned Europe killed 70,000. Meanwhile, in the United States, heat causes an average of only 618 deaths per year, and the more than 5,000 North American deaths in the un-air-conditioned days of 1936 remain a grim outlier.
Air conditioning is not immoral. Possessing a technology that can prevent mortality numbers like these and not using it? That’s immoral.
Air conditioning is, for most of us, a small summertime luxury. For others, it is a life-saving necessity. I am sure that it has environmental effects. Benefits always have costs, and there’s no such thing as a free climate-controlled lunch. But rather than addressing those costs by trying to limit the use of air conditioning and by insisting that developing nations not use the technologies that rocketed the developed world to success, perhaps we should be focusing on innovating new kinds of air conditioning that can keep us cool at a lesser cost.
I bet the kids who will invent that technology have already been born. I pray that they do not die in a heat wave before they can share it with us.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.