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The Problem with Egoism 19 October 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Philosophy.
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If you haven’t checked out the New York Times’ philosophy blog “The Stone”  you ought to. It offers an easy introduction to most of the popular topics you missed if you never took PHIL 101. I bring it up now because if you ever subscribed to Ayn Rand’s “objectivism” or an economist’s theory of “rational self-interest” today’s post on altruism by Judith Lichtenberg ought to give you pause. She lays out the problem here:

The logical lure of egoism is different: the view seems impossible to disprove. No matter how altruistic a person appears to be, it’s possible to conceive of her motive in egoistic terms. On this way of looking at it, the guilt Mr. Autrey [who sacrificed his life to pull someone out of the way of a subway train] would have suffered had he ignored the man on the tracks made risking his life worth the gamble. The doctor who gives up a comfortable life to care for AIDS patients in a remote place does what she wants to do, and therefore gets satisfaction from what only appears to be self-sacrifice. So, it seems, altruism is simply self-interest of a subtle kind.

The impossibility of disproving egoism may sound like a virtue of the theory, but, as philosophers of science know, it’s really a fatal drawback. A theory that purports to tell us something about the world, as egoism does, should be falsifiable. Not false, of course, but capable of being tested and thus proved false. If every state of affairs is compatible with egoism, then egoism doesn’t tell us anything distinctive about how things are.

That’s a good rebuttal to the egoist’s argument, but it stops a bit short of explaining why egoism fails as the basis for ethical theory. In response to the above, the egoist might say, “I agree. People always act selfishly. I was simply explaining how the world works. We cannot act altruistically.” Maybe he’s correct. Maybe the world does work that way, but even if that’s the case, then we find ourselves in need of a way to distinguish between good selfish actions and bad selfish actions. Or worse, between apparently altruistic selfish actions and apparently selfish selfish actions. Nonsense of course.

Selfishness remains the common denominator, so it drops out, and we still find ourselves looking for a theory that allows us to determine right and wrong.  Certainly a gulf exists between the selfish entrepreneur who sees pleasure in helping stamp out malaria in Africa and the selfish executive who cheats his shareholds. How does knowing that each one acts in his own self interest help us here? It doesn’t. Even if you believe egoism holds some descriptive power, it offers no path toward what we ought to do, so it’s a hollow observation indeed.

Visiting Vedauwoo 19 October 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Travel, Wyoming.
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The Wyoming of Commercials

You might recall from a high school history class that Wyoming is a US state. It’s kinda sorta squarish, and is for the most part large, empty and brown. Detroit has twice as many people, which should make you think about the desirability of living in either place. Even Dick Cheney left. Here in Denver, though, we see a  lot of commercials asking us to visit our northern neighbor, the plea usually following something about how wild Wyoming still is, and how buffalo roam everywhere, except those parts where ranchers don’t want them. Then they get shot–which is also pretty standard fare for Wyoming but still never makes the commercials.

Vedauwoo doesn’t either, and it’s worth a look. Just a couple hours from Denver, it offers a landscape so far removed from Coloradans’ expectations that its existence seems impossible. How could such a place have escaped notice when every other nook and cranny within a hundred-mile radius crawls with hikers? My first guess is that sites like this have something to do with it. That’s the first thing that pops up following a Google search and it looks like mid-90s web vomit. “Land of the earthborn spirit.”  That page does a disservice to this place. Nothing  deserves WordArt.

What Vedauwoo deserves, however, is an accurate depiction of its beauty and intrigue. The rock here, Sherman Granite, congealed deep within the earth 1.4 billion years ago, and 1.33 billion years later, during the uplift that created the Laramie mountains, that rock moved toward the surface, outlasting whatever surrounded it to to form the hoodoos and outcroppings marking the landscape today. It first appears about halfway between Cheyenne and Laramie. The rolling plains give way to forested hills, and the boulders loom over these, almost as if they were placed there by enormous hands. In places, they give the impression that they’ve been stacked like so many alphabet blocks, ready to topple with too strong a gust. But of course, erosion is and always has been the culprit. It’s still working today, and with every passing moment, you’re seeing a different landscape, one just a tiny bit closer to dust and sand. We found a boulder split in half on Sunday. It couldn’t have been long since it fell open.

Try to find it.

The road that winds its way from I-80 discourages travel. At times, the washboard threatens to tear apart the car bolt by bolt. Stick it out, though, and the reward is a campsite unencumbered by fees and crowds. The aspens whisper. A mule deer forages on the boundary between forest and sage. And the granite beckons. Explore.

Or don’t explore. Climb. According to that goofball website, the area features more than 900 named climbs, most of them some of the best wide-crack or “offwidth” routes in the world. So saith the site, anyway. But I’m inclined to believe them. The rock there is grippy if sharp, and any climb takes the climber out of the trees and into the views almost immediately. They probably involve some real puzzles as well. That’s good enough for me.

Whatever you plan to do in Vedauwoo, the allure remains the same: this is not Colorado. This feels somehow more remote and more Western. You can run out of gas between Cheyenne and Laramie if you play your cards wrong, and the guy who’ll pick you up isn’t driving a Subaru, but a Dodge. He’s not wearing a Patagonia fleece, but a cowboy hat. Maybe that’s what those commercials were trying to say: come home to Colorado, but visit Wyoming. Visit Vedauwoo.

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