The Most Powerful Idea Ever Discovered Supplementary Volume

By John "Birdman" Bryant

Copyright 1998 by John Bryant

Published By The Socratic Press PO Box 66683 St Petersburg Beach FL 33736-6683

Second Edition



In the opinion of the author, there is no such thing as truth, but only various individuals' opinions. Accordingly, nothing in the present book is claimed to be true, but is only claimed to represent the author's opinions; and any claims in the book regarding "truth", "facts", and the like are thus to be taken as a manner of speaking rather than an actual claim about truth, facts and the like. However, if the author is forced for legal purposes to make the assumption that truth exists, or that some statements are (or can be known to be) true or false, in that case (and that case alone) he claims that all statements in the present book are true in the sense that such statements, by being statements of the author's opinions, are true descriptions of said opinions, i.e., they are true descriptions of certain facts about the world -- namely, certain facts about the author's mental configuration -- and thus these statements are of necessity true.



To A.L.C.B. as always


Table of Contents


The Limits of Kindness - 4

The Nature of Black-White Moral Differences -

Comments on Some Items From Random Acts of Kindness - 8

Other Remarks - 10

Letters to Assorted Philosophers - 16

More On Heroes - 18

About the Author - 20

About the Socratic Press - 20


The Limits of Kindness

When I published The Most Powerful Idea Ever Discovered (hereinafter PI) in 1987, I solicited and received comments on my work from some half a hundred specially-qualified persons, most of whom reacted very positively; and purchasers of my books seem also to have been well-pleased with it, since it has been the most popular volume I have written. The reason for this relative popularity, so I now surmise, is that, as a result of the wholesale abandonment of traditional religious belief during the last half- century, people have developed a great spiritual hunger for what religion once provided, and that PI provided some important meat in satisfying that hunger. The three major aspects of people's spiritual hunger have been in the areas of morality, community and purpose. As to morality, people have hungered to know the difference between right and wrong -- a matter once decided by church authority, but now often shrouded in doubt as a result of the many complex problems which have been brought on by the rapid social changes of the last several decades, from integration, welfare and drug use to abortion, sexuality and insider trading. As to community, with the effective collapse of theology under pressure from modern science, churches have lost their hold on their parishioners, with the consequence that people -- whose natural state is that of belonging to a social group -- have been left without the sense of community that tightly-knit religious groups once gave to their members. (This lack of community has also been fueled by other factors, the most important of which is the change in sexual mores, which has disrupted the bonds of marriage and caused the divorce rate to skyrocket.) As to purpose, the collapse of religion has also left many people searching for the "meaning of life" -- a meaning which was once supplied by theology, and was generally described as "carrying out God's will". In PI I addressed certain questions of both morality and community, but my main interest was in elucidating an insight concerning the relation of personal happiness and interpersonal relations which I had received from a good deed which had once been done for me. I was therefore surprised, some eight years after PI's publication, to be reminded of my insight by a little volume entitled Random Acts of Kindness, a book consisting primarily of personal recollections by different authors of "unwarranted" good deeds done for them by others, interspersed with suggestions for the reader to do his own. Furthermore, I have now heard the phrase "random acts of kindness" enuf to know that it has become a sort of fad, if for no other reason than that it has proved an effective marketing device for books and bumper-stickers. I do of course find it somewhat gratifying to know that an idea around which I once structured a book has become popular; but I also find it frustrating that Random Acts of Kindness is little more than carefully de-religionized copy-book morality, when my own book not only developed the same basic idea, but demonstrated how it worked and why it was important. But if Random Acts of Kindness is deficient in the sense of advocating a sort of secularized religious philosophy which is just as lacking in rationality as ordinary religion, it has at least prompted me to write this supplementary volume in order to address some deficiencies in PI which have come to my attention since its publication. The severest deficiency, in fact, is one which also happens to be the greatest deficiency of Random Acts, namely, the failure to sufficiently address the question of what limits one should place on good deeds to others. In particular, as we noted in PI, a good deed is like a rock dropped into a pond: The waves radiate outward, producing in the recipients a tendency to behave the same toward others, thereby constituting a system of positive feedback as it is understood in systems theory. But does this work for everyone and every group? The answer is clearly no: As we noted in PI, it is unlikely to work for sworn enemies, who may take good deeds as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to exploit. Nor does it work for the socially-deficient, such as inner-city blacks, whose culture is that of exploitation and dominance, as demonstrated by the custom of "trash talk" and "dissing", which are intended to demean and obtain dominance, and are thus the exact opposite of good deeds. The problem we are grappling with here is demonstrated by the difference between what might be called Jewish ethics and Christian ethics, ie, the difference between the Old Testament exhortation of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" and the New Testament commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself". But are these ethics really in conflict? I don't think so, providing the Jewish ethic is interpreted as applying to outsiders, while the Christian ethic is interpreted as applying to members of one's own group. (Unfortunately, this interpretation was not made by Jesus, as demonstrated by his parable of the Good Samaritan, and this fact has done much to open Christians to the misguided "multiculturalism" of the present day.) This point is reinforced by considering an interesting fact about language, namely, that the word kind, in both the meaning "kind to" and in the meaning "group", comes from the same root. That is, this shared origin seems to mean that "to be kind" simply means "to act in the way that you treat your own kind", ie, that one is kind to one's kind, but not -- as a rule, anyway -- to outsiders. To this it should be added that it is not by some arbitrary diktat that we are kind to our kind but not to outsiders; it is rather that our language is telling us that this is the way the world works, and the reason why it works this way because this is the kind of  behavior which has stood the test of time. Needless to say, this observation has enormous implications for everything from integration and immigration to one-worldism and policies toward space aliens. The problem of who to be kind to is bound up with another important problem, namely, that of reinforcing the wrong behavior. To be specific, we do not in general want to be kind to a bad person because we do not want to reinforce his badness or help him so that he can do bad. This, of course, applies to criminals and others of similar orientation, but it also applies to such presumed innocents as beggars and welfarites; for to be kind to them in the sense of giving them handouts is to encourage their (undesirable) behavior. This, however, raises yet another important question, namely, Can being bad to a bad person (and thus interfering with or negatively reinforcing his bad behavior) be considered an act of kindness? I raise this question because a good deal of my work since writing PI has been precisely that of being bad to bad people -- acts which I would like to have interpreted as kindness toward the community at large, but which probably make me appear to some as a sort of pit bull of the computer keyboard. As I explained in PI, kindness produces feelings of obligation -- feelings which can radiate outward in a cascade of kindness to others -- but what I did not explain is that the mechanism which produces obligation from kindness is actually a mechanism which produces group cohesiveness (those of one "kind"), thus meaning that kindness -- or more generally altruism -- functions as an evolutionarily adaptive behavior for the group. This is important in the sense, as I have explained elsewhere, that evolution works not merely at the level of the individual, but rather at every level whatsoever, thus meaning that groups of every sort, including countries, races, towns, families, clubs and every other type of entity all participate in the evolutionary "struggle for survival", and that the cohesiveness induced by the mechanism of kindness is an important element in group survival. This, then, means that the existence of kindness and the obligation it induces is not some sort of mysterious spiritual conjuration, but is simply a mechanism which nature has given groups to aid their survival. But if groups are "struggling to survive", this means that groups which reject the notion of their own worth or uniqueness are bound to be destroyed as groups in this struggle, while groups which retain a strong feeling of "we/they" will survive. A case in point is a group which forms a very special minority in the present-day world, namely, the white race, which has been under assault from the "multicultural" liberals for some time, and in the present day is poised to become a minority in America within only a generation or so as a result of immigration and differential birth rates. While some regard this as either good or benign, others fear that the destruction of the white race will mean the destruction of white culture, as is already happening in southern California, where Mexicans are rapidly becoming a dominant political force, and has already happened in many of our large urban areas, where the inner cities are little better than Third-World hell-holes. And while some might argue that the cultural differences are not so much determined by race as by other factors, the fact remains that well-intended acts can have bad consequences, and that by helping starving Third-Worlders, welfare mothers, "oppressed" blacks or any of a large number of others to whom charity and other forms of altruism are often directed, the white race and American culture may be sowing the seeds of their own destruction.


The Nature of Black-White Moral Differences

The following essay discusses an important special case relevant to the limits of kindness.

After the October 1996 riots by blacks in St Petersburg, even some liberals have begun to question the liberal dogmas about black-white race relations. One notable example is an editorial by Robert Friedman, deputy editor of editorials for the local liberal daily, the St Petersburg Times ("The year isn't 1966", November 24, 1996: D1). From this piece it is obvious that Friedman, like most liberals, is not ready to make any negative generalizations about black behavior, tho he is willing to offer some criticisms of a type which rarely pass from liberal lips. The theme of his piece was an address to blacks which said -- in the pitiful, self- effacing manner peculiar to liberals -- Hey, liberals are the good guys -- we gave you a nice liberal mayor, a nice liberal police chief, nice black representation in the city administration, and so on and so forth, and, gee, guys, now you've tried to burn down our city. So really, guys, that's just not very nice, and you really ought not to have done it, and hey, I hate racism just as much as you, and so you really, honest-to-golly ought to clean up your act and at least not burn anything more down, and, jeez, it would be really, really, great, too, if you just apologized, and Hey, that wouldn't hurt too much now, would it? Friedman's editorial calls for comment on several points. The first is that few people respond to words, but most respond to incentives. Which means that when, after all this black rioting, the mayor calls a "conference" of "leaders" to "hear what the city can do"; and when the bigwigs in Washington come down and express their "concern" and consider extending federal "help"; and when the newspapers run long articles about "racism" with scowling black faces and pictures and bios of those who fueled the riot; and when these same papers run long articles about "root causes" and "healing" and "racism" and "police brutality" and all the other liberal shibboleths and bugbears, then it is pretty obvious that the folks who are doing this are providing piles and piles and piles and piles of incentives for rioting, hating Whitey, non-negotiable "demands", and everything else that Friedman and other editorial writers at the Times have piously denounced. Which leads me to ask why Mr Friedman and his fellow liberals don't just go down to south St Pete and burn a few buildings themselves and spare the rest of us the self-righteous pieties. But speaking of incentives, there is another important issue here, namely, that blacks do not respond to the same incentives that whites do. In this context I am not speaking of their renowned laziness, their drug habits or similar qualities which are often mentioned, but rather to a quality of character which is apparently fundamental to whites but significantly absent in blacks, namely, sensitivity to obligation. In an oblique way this is acknowledged by Friedman's editorial, because what he says there in essence is, Hey, we've given blacks every reasonable thing, so how about blacks at least acting like civilized human beings? Or to put it another way, Whites have worked hard to do the right thing (and more) for blacks,  so how about blacks acknowledging the obligation and behaving accordingly? Now lest I seem to be grandstanding about the above observation, let me point out that the significance of sensitivity to obligation is discussed at length in my booklet The Most Powerful Idea Ever Discovered, where I note that this is a characteristic fundamental to the operation and success of Christianity, and indeed is the unrecognized core of Christian belief, altho most Christians are essentially unaware of this fact. More particularly, it may be suggested that the (implicit) recognition by Christianity of the power of obligation constitutes a significant advance over Judaism (whose core belief about interpersonal relations is "an eye for an eye"), and may thus be responsible for Christianity's success in its philosophical "competition" with the faith which spawned it. So what, then, is the power of obligation? In brief, it is the fact that a good deed creates the desire in the recipient to return -- and perhaps augment -- the good which was received. And it is not only whites who feel the power of obligation, but also the Japanese; for to the Japanese, the gravest insult is an allegation that someone "does not know giri [obligation]". But my point is that, if the power of obligation is fundamental to Western and Japanese civilizations -- and may indeed be the key to why they are arguably the world's most successful civilizations -- the power of obligation seems significantly absent among blacks, and may thus be an important contributor to the fact that black civilization (such as it is) -- and individual blacks themselves -- are beset with failure. But I am not about to decry blacks as immoral because they are insensitive to obligation. Contrary to current liberal dogma, to be sensitive or insensitive is a matter of perceptual acuity, not morality; and we should no more hold blacks guilty of a moral crime for their insensitivity than we should hold a colorblind man. The point is rather that Western morality proceeds from the assumption that men are sensitive to moral obligations, so that when this assumption is false -- as it largely is in the case of blacks -- morality collapses. This, however, has never been a problem before the present, since before the 1950s blacks were recognized and treated as inferiors, and thus there was no significant interaction between blacks and whites in which there was an expectation of a common morality. But now that blacks have been officially recognized as "equals" (actually, superiors), it has become impossible to control black behavior because white morality is powerless against the obligationally-insensitive blacks. In effect, then, blacks have become a sort of Trojan horse in white society because they can abuse the system without suffering the consequences (shame and guilt) which whites would suffer, a fact which gives them the power to destroy society by taking advantage of whites. There is, however, a special irony in this situation, because it is primarily due to the shame and guilt of whites -- or more precisely, white  liberals -- which has unleashed the black plague on the rest of society. That is, liberals felt guilty about slavery, about treating blacks as inferiors, and the like; and it was because of this guilt -- a guilt which blacks in a similar position are largely incapable of feeling -- that blacks were given "civil rights" and became "equal" with whites. Indeed, the black hero of heroes -- the great pretender "Dr" Martin Luther King -- achieved his exalted status precisely because he was the black man who discovered how to manipulate whites by pressing the guilt button. And in view of the success of Christianity in producing Western civilization, it is ironic that the basis of Christianity and the ultimate source of its power and morality -- namely, sensitivity to obligation -- is now proving to be Western civilization's greatest weakness and the cause of its decline and possible collapse. The above discussion raises the question of why whites and blacks are different in obligational sensitivity. While it is impossible to answer this question with certainty, it is possible to make a credible speculation. Because Africa is, on the whole, a rich country of desirable climate which will sustain human life without much work (how much effort is required to roast some caterpillars and pick some fruit?), it seems reasonable that Africa was a preferred place of residence, and thus fell into the hands of those who were strongest, thereby leaving the less- desirable and generally-colder portions of the world to the physically less-capable. As a result of evolutionary pressures, however, this situation had the ironic effect of strengthening the "weaker" tribes excluded from Africa by weeding out those who could not survive the cold, and in particular those who could not cooperate with others in forming societies which could carry out such vital functions as group hunting (necessary for bringing down large animals) and defense. The result was that the once-weaker "ice people" now became stronger as a result of their relegation to the colder climes, particularly with respect to their intelligence (needed for inventiveness in obtaining food in colder climes) and ability to form cooperative groups. Africans, then, remained under evolutionary pressure to maintain physical superiority -- thus possibly accounting for their present-day worldwide dominance of many sports -- but -- since food was plentiful -- were without such pressure to increase intelligence (possibly accounting for low black IQ) or to be industrious (possibly accounting for their laziness). While it is true, at least from the viewpoint of white morality, that blacks are severely indebted to whites, it is useless to appeal to blacks' moral sense, because "they do not know giri". Liberals, on the other hand, are morally sensitive, even if misguided; but the debt to the remainder of society which liberals are accruing by letting blacks make mincemeat of American and Western civilization is so large that they will probably never admit their indebtedness or their mistakes, which is probably why the best solution to the race problem is to not only send the blacks back to Africa, but the liberals along with them.


Comments on Some Items From Random Acts of Kindness

* On p 81 is recounted the story of Mary, an elderly wheelchair-bound widow, whose house had been going to hell in a handbasket, presumably because she was too poor or incapacitated to do anything about it. So several neighbors "went down to the Office of Community Development, got 45 gallons of Mary's favorite-colored paint" and made the house look like the shining star of the neighborhood. It seems, however, that all may not be quite as the book tells it. For one thing, the neighbors were probably getting pretty damned tired of looking at her house, which was not only an eyesore, but which was hurting their property values to boot. If they had decided to take Mary to court, or to get a City board to order her to do a fix-up, they might have spent a lot more time and money than they did by fixing it up themselves. But there is another point, which is better illustrated by the next story:

* On p 88 is told the story of a woman in a grocery express checkout line who was complaining at a great rate about having to wait in line so long because there weren't enuf checkers, people used checks when they weren't supposed to, and so on; but who discovered upon receipt of her bill (about $4) that she had no money to pay. At this point, the person behind her paid her bill. While the presumption of this story is that paying the woman's bill was a "random act of kindness", it is clear that it was not an act of kindness at all, but rather a means of insulting the woman by being kind (or rather "kind") to her when she had been anything but kind. This act bears a resemblance to acts of "passive resistance", in which people stand passively in the way of some vehicle or body of men and allow themselves to be beaten or otherwise placed in danger. In fact, such Christian-like "turn the other cheek" acts are not really "passive" at all, but are in fact acts of extreme aggression because of the danger in which they place their perpetrators. Sweet Jesus, my rear end!

* On p 134 the authors suggest we practice "random acts of kindness" by, for example, buying a box of candy in a movie, taking a piece, and passing it down the row; or volunteering to pick up mail for an older person who could use the assistance. My old cynical self, however, sees distinct problems with such acts: Just wait till you, an innocent eater of candy, find out that the guy who purchased the candy was a practical joker who spiked your fare with LSD; and just wait till the old man complains to someone in the bureaucracy about your stealing his mail. Let me tell you, babe, random acts of kindness can be as dangerous as hell. Wot? Am I being unkind?


Other Remarks

Besides the remarks in the first section, there are other points of criticism and qualification which need to be made to the original PI manuscript. These are found in the paragraphs below:

* The major intent of PI is to argue in favor of the thesis (which I named "the most powerful idea ever discovered", or "the Idea") that it is in one's own self-interest to behave unselfishly; and thus PI may be thought of as arguing in favor of altruism (i.e., altruistic utilitarianism). What I failed to fully appreciate at the time of writing, however, is the fact that the Fundamental Theorem of Utility Theory, which I described in my Systems Theory and Scientific Philosophy and which I had developed before 1973, unites altruism and egoism in the sense of showing the condition under which they become the same, namely, when there is free flow of information. (In this context, it is also useful to note Adam Smith's revolutionary discovery that egoism can have enormously altruistic effects ("the invisible hand") and Thoreau's observation ("When you see someone coming toward you who wants to do you a good turn, run for your life") that altruistic acts often have anything-but-altruistic consequences.) Thus it can be seen that PI and Systems Theory are significantly complementary in the sense that both show the convergence of egoism and altruism, tho from rather different perspectives.

* Related to the notion that altruism coincides with egoism under the proper conditions is the notion that altruism is evolutionarily adaptive -- a notion which contradicts the commonly-held intuition of Darwinists that life is a "struggle for survival" in which any aid to another is merely helping the competition and thus hurting one's own chances of survival. In Mortal Words v3 I had the following to say about this matter: "One of the biggest mistakes made by evolutionists is to think of evolution as applying only to individuals, whereas in reality evolution applies to everything whatsoever, i.e., the entire universe or any subset of it. The importance of this observation is that it clears up a significant misunderstanding about what constitutes evolution. To explain, consider the thesis of Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, to wit, that evolution may be viewed as nothing but the struggle for survival of genes, and thus that any seemingly altruistic behavior of humans or any other living form is merely an expression of the underlying efforts of genes to survive and reproduce: While Dawkins' thesis has much innate plausibility, it seems to falter in attempting to explain what might be called the Paradox of Altruism, i.e., the fact that evolution has produced behavior in individuals which promotes group survival at the expense of the individual who manifests it; for example, the stinging of honeybees, which kills the individual bee but promotes the survival of the hive: The somewhat- implausible explanation which is invoked by those of Dawkins' stripe is that the bee's dying indirectly promotes the survival of its genes via promoting survival of the hive as a whole. The resolution of this problem, of course, is to abandon the thesis that evolution is restricted to the genes, and to accept the fact that everything struggles for survival, including genes. By doing this, then, we are able to recognize that there may be an evolutionary competition between wholes and parts, in addition to their obvious cooperation: In the case of bees, the individual which stings to protect the hive loses in competition with the whole (the hive) of which it is a part. This position is reinforced by considering an observation which Dawkins makes to the effect that ideas ("memes") struggle for survival in the same way that genes or physical bodies do: One might conceivably argue that "real" evolution is the evolution of ideas, and that brains and the bodies that serve them are merely entities which are used by ideas to propagate and replicate themselves. Sic transit glorious gene." As it happens, other authors besides myself have recognized that altruism has survival value. For example, in his book Mutual Aid a Factor of  Evolution (1902) (referred to in Ashley Montague, On Being Human, NY: Hawthorn Books, 1966 (1950)), Prince Petr Kropotkin attempted to show that there exists an unconscious force in nature which is manifested as a sort of synergistic relation among all forms of life which promotes mutual survival -- an assertion evidently based on the recognition that altruism has survival value.

* When I first developed the Idea, I was convinced that it was my own original discovery. By the time I wrote the first edition of the Supplementary Volume, I considered this mistaken. In considering the matter once again, I am inclined to take a middle ground: While many men have been "onto" the Idea, none has quite laid it out as a principle of behavior, as I have; and certainly none has done so in as detailed and elaborate manner as I have. Here, for the record, are the ideas of other men which I have come across that suggest, parallel or in some wise render a version of the Idea:

++ The Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-83) stated "Altruism is identical to self-seeking".

++ William Paley (1743-1805) opined that "Altruism is to our long-term self-interest".

++ In addition to the above, PI evidently also owes a debt to such early philosophers as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Bernard Mandeville (1670- 1733) ("the partisans of self-love"), and 18th century philosopher Joseph Butler (1692-1752).

++ Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed that it was impossible to sin if we see it as evil, and that immorality was "miscalculation".

++ John Locke (1632-1704) believed the inevitable pursuit of happiness and pleasure, when conducted rationally, leads to cooperation, and that in the long run, private and the general welfare coincide.

++ A more modern rendering of the Idea, or at least hints of it, may be found in Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), who stated that "Goodness is the only investment that never fails".

++ Ambrose Bierce (1842-c1914) gave the following "definition" in his Devil's Dictionary:

"Immoral: Inexpedient. Whatever in the long run and with regard to the greater number of instances men find to be generally inexpedient comes to be considered wrong, wicked, immoral. If man's notions of right and wrong have any other basis than this of expediency; if they originated, or could have originated, in any other way; if actions have in themselves a moral character apart from and nowise dependent on, their consequences -- then all philosophy is a lie and reason a disorder of the mind."

++ According to H.L. Mencken (The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908), Noontide Press 1982, Introduction), "Reduced to elementals, Nietzsche[(1844-1900)]'s philosophy consists of the following propositions: ... That all schemes of morality are nothing more than efforts to put into permanent codes the expedients found useful by some given race in the course of its successful endeavors to remain alive. ... That, despite the universal tendency to give these codes authority by crediting them to some god, they are essentially man-made and mutable, and so change, or should change, as the conditions of human existence in the world are modified." This does not mean that Nietzsche endorses religion, however, for a further principle of his philosophy, according to Mencken, is: "That all gods and religions, because they have for their main object the protection of moral codes against change, are inimical to the life and well-being of healthy and efficient men."

* The above observations raise the question of whether the Idea can be classified among ethical theories, as several philosophers suggested to me, and if so, how. One proposed classification was that of egoistic hedonism, which according to A.C. Ewing (Ethics, NY: Collier, 1962, pp. 21-2) is "... the view ... that our duties towards others are to be commended solely on efficient, tho indirect, means of attaining [our own happiness]"; but to use this classification seems to require that "duty to others" be awkwardly interpreted as including altruistic acts as well as those of the obligation-satisfying tit-for-tat variety. Another proposed classification of the Idea was enlightened self-interest, defined as "We obey moral rules, even when it is irksome or inconvenient to do so, because we know that we shall suffer if we do not ... [In addition], most men are intelligent enough to see the advantages that they will gain in the long run by fulfilling their moral obligations" (Nowell-Smith (1967). This, however, fails to capture the spirit of PI in the sense that it does not speak of altruism, but only of following rules and fulfilling obligations, and hence fails as a classification for much the same reason that egoistic hedonism does. A third possible classification for the Idea, suggested to me by two different philosophers, is that of ethical egoism, defined by Frankena (Ethics (1963)) as the belief that moral right is whatever promotes one's own good. This classification, however, also fails because PI is not a theory of the nature of moral right, but rather a theory of how to maximize happiness. A definition of ethical egoism somewhat different from Frankena's is given by John Hospers, who characterizes it as "the view that each person should act in such a way as to promote his or her own self- interest (usually long-term self-interest)." (Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought, Autumn 1980, "The Literature of Ethics in the Twentieth Century": 12.) The trouble with this definition, however, is that people in fact always do act in their own self-interest, so the theory that people "ought to do" what they in fact do seems useless at best. It may be usefully pointed out, however, that what Hospers may be covertly saying is that people ought to act in their best long-term as opposed to short-term interest; but this is wrong since some ("short- sighted") people prefer short-term pleasures to greater long-term ones, which simply means that the value of pleasure's immediacy to such people outweighs the possibility of its increase at a later date, and is thus in no sense "irrational" in spite of the fact that we might consider it foolish, demonstrative of an absence of discipline, or the like. But if there is any one reason why PI does not fit into a classification of ethics, it is that PI is not about ethics as it is usually understood. Ethics, in particular, has always been concerned with "duty", what we "ought" to do, and the like, where in most cases the duty or "ought" was judged according to some pre-existing set of rules, eg, the Ten Commandments or the Code Napoleon. PI, in contrast, is concerned only with maximizing happiness, and involves "duty" and other traditional ethical concerns only in the sense of acknowledging by implication that one is likely to be unhappy if one does not attend to them. But then the fundamental problem with ethics is that most philosophers do not realize what ethics is fundamentally about, namely, the rules which maximize  society's happiness. In this sense, of course, PI is indeed about ethics, tho to say so is confusing since the concept of ethics is ultimately dispensible since it is reducible to concerns about happiness.

* The following remarks are relevant to the Synanon Game, which is discussed in PI as "The Second Most Powerful Idea Ever Discovered".

++ Konrad Lorenz (On Aggression, p. 243) has noted that environmental pressures which have existed for most of man's time on earth have made aggression an adaptive characteristic; but modern life has made this characteristic much less adaptive -- if not actually maladaptive -- and as a result, "present-day civilized man suffers from insufficient discharge of his aggressive drive." Since the Synanon game provides such a release, this adds to its potential import.

++ The Synanon Game has something in common with the ancient Japanese practice of shendai, described in Webb Garrison's Ignorance Book, p. 91. According to Garrison, when a couple reaches the point of no return in a quarrel, they retreat to a room absent furniture, strip off their clothes, and begin whacking each other with a pillow. The "loser", according to tradition, is the one whose pillow breaks first; and the requirement of the shendai ritual is that the winner initiate love-making immediately after the battle is over. Many believe that shendai is responsible for the fact that the Japanese divorce rate is one of the lowest in the world.

* The fact that altruistic and "Christian-like" behavior is displayed by members of the animal kingdom demonstrates that this sort of behavior has far deeper roots than humans may wish to admit. (For an interesting description of animal altruism -- and an interpretation of this behavior as self-interest -- see "Looking Out for Number One", National Wildlife Dec/Jan 1992 p 46). While these include such obvious displays of altruism (or "altruism") as caring for the young or defending their mate, there are other important examples. For example, Konrad Lorenz, in King Solomon's  Ring, suggests that turning the other cheek is an effective inhibitor of aggression, much after the fashion of the defeated wolf who turns his jugular toward his opponent as if offering his life. (Lorenz was the discoverer of inhibitory behavior, for which he received the Nobel prize.) Lorenz also notes that the "chivalry" of the wolf was not achieved by man till the emergence of knight-errantry. And in his book On Aggression (NY: Harcourt, Brace & World 1966 (1963): c 126), Lorenz discusses "passive resistance" as a widespread behavior in animals (e.g., male wolves never harm females, even if attacked viciously) and, as Lorenz notes, it is "a very general principle" that this passivity in the face of attack makes a "deep impression" on the attacker. But if, as Lorenz tells us, altruistic and Christian-like behavior can be detected in the lower animals, he also makes the following surprising observation (On Aggression, p 216): "As we know from Chapter Eight, there are animals totally devoid of aggression which keep together for life in firmly united flocks. One would think that such animals would be predestined to develop permanent friendships and brotherly unions of individuals, and yet these characteristics are never found among such peaceable herd creatures; there association is always entirely anonymous. A personal bond, an individual friendship, is found only in animals with highly developed intra-specific aggression [i.e., aggression directed toward members of its own species]: in fact, this bond is the firmer, the more aggressive the particular animal and species is." Perhaps the meaning of this passage is that altruism and Christian-like behavior develop only where there is a need, such as in the highly-aggressive and dangerous killer ape which is man.

* Robert Axelrod, in The Evolution of Cooperation, shows recognition of feedback loops in human behavior (p. 138) but does not recognize the importance of obligation and the Golden Rule (cf. p. 136-7). He also makes the mistake of advocating being a bully (p. 153), which may be OK in the limited context of continual interaction but sounds universally inapplicable.

* It is most embarrassing to report that Gandhi is misspelled Ghandi in the book. We trust the reader will forgive this blunder.


Letters to Assorted Philosophers

(To Charles Young, Claremont Graduate School, 13 Nov 87) As to the apparent contradiction in acting "unselfishly" for "selfish" motives, the answer to this is implicit in my booklet, tho it should be made explicit. The answer is that unselfish behavior refers to behavior generally regarded as unselfish. In a very general and inexact way this can be described as "helping others", "putting others first", or whatever. I am not certain whether an exact definition of unselfishness can ever be given -- ultimately, like the definition of all words, it requires on an ostensive rather than a verbal definition. But the important thing in the definition is that it be with reference to behavior rather than intention -- if you will, the definition must be extensive rather than intensive. The ultimate explanation for this is that it is impossible to act "unselfishly" in an intensional sense: as I point out in the booklet, all acts ultimately spring from desire, and this fact negates ab initio any possibility of acting "unselfishly" in the "final analysis". Another way to put this is that, even if we behave unselfishly (in the conventional sense), there is always a sense in which we are acting selfishly -- i.e., we are always governed by a "higher order" or "meta" selfishness.

(To Erling Skorpen, University of Maine, 28 Nov 87) The apparent dilemma which you mention is, I believe, resolved in recognizing something which was certainly implied -- tho probably not explicit enuf -- in the text, viz, that free giving is giving without expectation of short-term reward or reward for any specific act. It is my thesis that free giving is motivated by expectation of long-term reward -- for the Christian, this long-term reward is (thought of as) eternal happiness, tho in fact I argue that a very important psychological component of Christianity is that it reinforces free giving with earthly rewards, and that it is this reinforcement which has made Christianity so durable. Because of the way I have defined free giving, the term is probably somewhat misleading, but I depend on the text to make my meaning clear. Perhaps it will help clarify things in your mind to reflect on the statement made early on in the text that, no matter how we choose to act, we necessarily and invariably act in our own self-interest, and this in spite of whether we renounce power over others or not. (And even if you do renounce power over others, this does not mean that there is not a sense in which you would deeply love such power -- in fact your implied renouncement may be an attempt to overtly deny what you covertly covet. A quote of J.B.R. Yant is relevant here: Tho the policeman may have chosen his profession because he desires to exercise power over others, there is no more reason to despise him for it than to despise, for example, the philosopher, whose quest for power differs only in its subtlety; for the man who makes others march to his ideas is surely no less powerful than one who makes them march to his nightstick.)  In a sense, I think the fact that we can do nothing other than act in our own self-interest is a very disappointing realization for all us potential saints, and I believe I see your disappointment reflected in your reference to Job. But there is no reason, I think, to clothe ourselves in sackcloth and ashes about it.

(Second letter to Erling Skorpen, 10 Dec 87) My understanding of what you characterize as my dilemma is that you believe that the love of power (and the desire to have or exercise it over others) is inconsonant with free giving. In a limited sense I think you are right: It is because we act in order to satisfy our desires (i.e., for "ulterior motives") that (strict) free giving is made impossible. BUT, I do say that an "approximation" to free giving can be accomplished, viz, giving without expectation of immediate return or return for a specific act of giving: It is this more qualified form of free giving which I advocate as yielding long-term benefits. This is what I talked about in my last letter, and I cannot see that it poses any dilemma. But if you think it does, please explain it to me. I would say, however, that a second edition of my booklet could stand to clarify this point, and I think you are on target in bringing it up.

(To James Sterba, U of Notre Dame, 28 Mar 88) ... you seem to be suggesting that the Idea is somehow refuted by the act of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his buddies, since he is presumably acting unselfishly but not truly in his own self-interest. This point is interesting but wrong, tho I am grateful to you for making it. To begin, let us take a more clear-cut case: A soldier who could save himself by ducking behind a barricade, but who deliberately chooses -- after several years of philosophical speculation and three days of prayer -- to cast himself on the grenade to save his buddies, even tho he believes that he will be killed. (We have to assume the philosophical speculation because we wish to exclude the case where the poor fellow acts reflexively -- an irrelevant case.) We now ask: Could he be acting out of rational self-interest? The answer is yes: Perhaps, as a convinced utilitarian, he could not live with himself if he did not (i.e., the pain of living would be worse than the pain of death); perhaps the chance of being remembered as a hero is of greater value than a colorless extension of his mundane transitory existence. But the point is that he could be (and in fact must be) acting from self-interest, as will be clear from mastering the discussion in my booklet ...

(To Loren Lomasky, U of MN, 28 Apr 88) I think there is some need to expand my booklet to deal more explicitly with the question, Does everyone always act in his own self-interest? In particular, it would have behooved me to treat explicitly (or more explicitly) two cases: (1) the hero (2) the saint, both of whom would be ostensibly perceived as not acting in their- own self-interest. As to (1), we could argue that "heroic" behavior is merely an extension of helping-type behavior which has been reinforced over a long period of time, i.e., behavior which has been rewarded with praise, etc., and hence behavior which -- tho not necessarily "conscious" (or at least highly conscious) is still a behavior intended in this subconscious sort of way as the type seeking after a very direct reward. As to (2), the saint we take [in contrast to the hero] to be highly conscious of his choices, but we argue that he chooses his sainthood as merely a way of maximizing his anticipated utility, as summed over time. In the book's terminology, we would say that he is exchanging present pain for future reward, e.g., he expects to receive glorious eternal life in exchange for acting saintly in this transitory life on earth. ... If I may say so, I think that the difficulty of my position -- if it can be called that -- is that it takes away the illusion (or whatever) that we can indeed leave the ego behind and act like saints. The desire to be saintly is strong (I'm a closet saint myself), so my theory tends to put off those who have experienced "the call", as a minister I used to know described it.


More On Heroes

While the response to James Sterba above is correct as far as it goes, I think the analysis deserves further elaboration in answering the question, Does a hero act unselfishly but not in his own self-interest? That is, while throwing oneself on a hand grenade is unselfish, it also seems clearly not in one's self-interest; and if this is true, then it would be an exception to the Idea. To begin, therefore, consider first the case where the government makes a request to its citizens for volunteers to defend the country from attack, and let us ask why a man, who conveniently happens to be a philosopher, would respond to such a request, assuming he is not motivated by glory, booty, or anything other than seeing his country survive. The first reason he will volunteer is fear of shame: He doesn't want to have others wonder why he did not volunteer since he has no good reason to not volunteer. The second reason for volunteering is the "feedback" reason, namely, that he wants others to volunteer in order to save the country, and he knows that if he himself volunteers, this will have a positive effect on inducing others to volunteer, either from fear of shame, from going along with the crowd, or similar reason; whereas if he did not volunteer, this would induce others to do the same. The third reason for volunteering is that our philosopher knows that a paradox is involved, namely, the same one I named the Paradox of Voting Motivation in Systems Theory. This paradox is that, altho one more vote (volunteer) won't change the outcome of the election (war), if everyone reasons this way and doesn't vote (volunteer), the election (war) will be lost. Thus if it is vital to the philosopher that the war not be lost, he will volunteer, thereby making it (slightly) more likely that the war will be won, and -- more importantly -- pushing others in the direction of resolving the paradox by coming down on the side of volunteering. But there is yet another reason our philosopher will volunteer, namely, because of the argument from group survival and evolution. To explain, we recall our explanation in an earlier section that the struggle for survival involves not merely individuals, but groups of all sorts, ideas, and in fact everything whatsoever. This, then, means that human groups cannot survive unless they have members who have a tendency to volunteer to take on the responsibility of providing for the common defense. Accordingly, if the group to which our philosopher belongs is an adaptive group, then it will somehow manage to produce defenders, and thus our philosopher, as a member of an adaptive group, will have a tendency to volunteer. In conclusion, the hero is but an extreme case of the volunteer: If he has time to reflect on matters, then he will volunteer his heroism in the same way that our philosopher will volunteer his services: To avoid shame, to induce others to behave similarly, to resolve the cited paradox in favor of his beloved country, and because he acts adaptively for his group. These are his interests, and he acts to further them. So tell me not in mournful numbers that heroes don't act in their own self-interest.


About the Author

Mr Bryant did his undergraduate work at Antioch College and the American University, receiving his B.A. in mathematics in 1968. He later did graduate work in the philosophy of logic at the Union Graduate School, Yellow Springs, Ohio. Altho the bulk of his scholarly publications has been in the field of logic, where he is credited with developing the concept of relative modal logic, his scholarly efforts also include works in systems philosophy, education and other fields. In addition, Mr. Bryant has been deeply involved with the philosophy of the extended family movement, and this involvement won him local media recognition several years ago for founding and directing an innovative extended family program at the Unitarian Society of Germantown in Philadelphia. Mr. Bryant is a computer buff, a pigeon fancier, a cartoonist, a columnist, an award- winning poet, a successful futures trader, a member of the legendary high- IQ organization Mensa, and is listed in Who's Who in the World and other prestigious volumes.

About the Socratic Press

The Socratic Press was founded in 1986 for the purpose of publishing works by or about John Bryant, or works which are directly complementary to the ideas or themes which Mr. Bryant has developed in the numerous books, articles and pamphlets which he has written. The Press is named for Socrates, the gadfly of ancient Athens who questioned everything, was put to death for "corrupting the youth", and who began a philosophical tradition which has endured for almost 2500 years.

Authors who are interested in submitting manuscripts for possible publication by the Press should know that manuscripts of any length will be considered, but cannot be acknowledged or returned unless a self-addressed stamped envelope is included with the submission.



Please contribute today - buy our books - and spread the word to all your friends!

* * * Back to the Home Page of John "Birdman" Bryant, the World's Most Controversial Author * * *