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Philosophical phree-phor-all on reason, morality and happiness

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 15 years ago, in 2009, on the World Wide Web.

There have been a lot of long, interesting threads of conversation going on in the comments of some of this week’s posts. The purpose of this post is to disentangle one of those threads ot make the conversation more easily followed.

Branching off of a conversation which began (several turns of the conversation before) with a discussion of the recent May Day immigration freedom March in Las Vegas, Aster raised some questions about the relationship between reason, morality and happiness:

I'm with the morally ambiguous side of the Force....

I think integrity and spiritual independence are neccesary to make life worth living. I think controlling people is a terrible way to live, and that friendship is one of life's deepest pleasures. I think learning to give others a chance to show their best is essential in the eternal search for that most rare treasure of the intelligent mind. I think we need to carefully set up a society which lets people live according to what can most move them. I think we need social codes which set the rules slightly more sternly than the way we ourselves would find it worthwhile to act. and I think that living with passion and seriousness can add immense depth to existence.

But ultimately I do not believe in the respectable sort of morality. I see no evidence. Ayn Rand claimed that you can be be both passionately self-interested and classically moral, but I don't believe she was that innocent, and all my evidence suggests that she was offering something a bit too neatly good to be true. Roderick Long and Charles Johnson both seem to believe in a perfect correspondence of reason and happiness. I don't see it, not in human society's bloody world. I feel that Roderick's strength in happiness is connected with something that feels more like rigorous kindness than rigorous morality, Charles offers a pure model of perfect morality which tends to drive out his warmth of happiness. My experience tells me that we will find that love can make us selfishly selfless and that pain can make us degraded monsters at the whim of society and circumstance, and that one's energy is better spent trying to be true to thine own self than in worrying about whether one is good. But I am curious: if morality and happiness really do perfectly correlate, I would really like to know, as it would make the math much easier.

— Aster, 6 May 2009 8:23pm

Roderick replied:


Roderick Long and Charles Johnson both seem to believe in a perfect correspondence of reason and happiness.

I think my own view would be best described as saying that reason and morality are necessary for happiness but not sufficient for it. Dammit, Jim, I'm an Aristotelean, not a Stoic!

— Roderick T. Long, 6 May 2009 9:26pm


Like Roderick, my view is that reason and morality are necessary but not sufficient for happiness. (Also, specifically, that they're necessary conditions because they are constituent factors of happiness, not just because they are instrumental to attaining or sustaining it.)

I feel that Roderick's strength in happiness is connected with something that feels more like rigorous kindness than rigorous morality,

I'm not sure I understand the contrast. Isn't kindness a moral virtue? Aren't its opposites — cruelty or callousness — moral vices?

— Rad Geek, 6 May 2009 10:15pm


Ditto on constitutive as opposed to instrumental.

— Roderick T. Long, 6 May 2009 11:04pm

Clarissa the Vampire intervened:

Feasting on the soul of a truly happy person makes me happy. It is better than chocolate. Would I be happier without this?

— Clarissa the Vampire, 7 May 2009 7:55am


Well, depends on how you conceive of happiness, I suppose. If you think of happiness as being constituted by some sort of psychological state — momentary pleasure, or habitual pleasure, or some sort of overarching feeling of satisfaction or contentment, or… — then, who knows? Maybe vampires have happy lives. But I don’t think that happiness is constituted only by psychological states. At least, not in the sense of happiness that Roderick and I are using (which is, roughly, the Aristotelian conception of eudaimonia, and which has to do with leading a happy life rather than just with feeling happy).

On my view, psychological states are part of happiness but not all of it, so that (among other things) the exercise of intelligence, ethical living, the extent to which one’s psychological states are based on truth, and the nature of the enjoyments that one takes pleasure in, are all relevant. So, for example, someone who is pleased or satisfied all the time, but based on a lie, is to that extent not living a happy life, even though she may feel like she is (suppose she believes she has a happy marriage, when in fact her wife is actually a duplicitous creep, who constantly lies to her, cheats on her, destroys little things just of hers just for the pleasure of it, and talks shit about her behind her back; suppose also that her wife is very good at deceiving, so she never finds out about any of this as long as she lives; I don’t think that qualifies as a happy life). Similarly, someone who gets their pleasures by hurting or disrespecting or degrading other people (say the wife we just discussed; or a man like Trujillo or Mobutu Sese-Seko or Beria; or your average garden-variety rapist) is thereby living a miserable life, even if, at the time, they do not realize that it is miserable; even if, at the time (as was the case for, say, Trujillo) they feel perfectly pleased with themselves and feel quite content with living that kind of life. The fact that they enjoy the kind of life that they lead, in fact, makes the whole thing more miserable, not less.

So, to answer the question, I do not think that enjoying the destruction or damnation of others makes a vampire happy, even though the vampire may believe that it does. It may please the vampire, but that’s not the same thing. I don’t know whether or not the life of the vampire would be happier without destroying or damning others (I’m sure it depends on the details; different vampires seem to have different relationships with their condition), but if it turns out that the vampire could not live a happy life without destroying or damning others, then I’d say that the vampire cannot live a happy life at all, and would be better off accepting death than continuing to live under such conditions.

— Rad Geek, 7 May 2009, 8:24am

Or, in a related note:

People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.

—James Baldwin

— Rad Geek, 7 May 2009 8:41am


Here's a piece I wrote that gives some background on the Aristotelean conception of happiness.

— Roderick T. Long, 7 May 2009, 8:40am

Nick Manley:

[quoting Rad Geek] "I'm not sure I understand the contrast. Isn't kindness a moral virtue? Aren't its opposites — cruelty or callousness — moral vices?"

Kindness is underrated by too many people. I admit I've been kind with people whose views totally repulse me. Anyone whose met me in person knows how soft/traditionally "femme" I am. Nonetheless, I don't think we can posit kindness as an instrinic good. Like every other principle: it has to be applied contextually. Can a Jew be genuinely kind to an active Nazi stormtrooper? Imagine the emotional denial involved in that. Then again: Roderick may have the right answer here — being angry at someone without hating them. I'd be curious to hear him expound upon this further.

I guess I am personally closer to Aster in behavior...I am no saint in thought or deed — although; I don't mind living my life according to the principle of non-aggression. I've found no conflict between this and my own happiness. There's no necessity to work for the IRS or the DEA — thank goodness!!! I am not sure I could stomach it.

Nonetheless, I always loved how Rand forged a link between self-interest and "societal interest" — for lack of a better way of stating it. It really does inspire me! It speaks to the desire within me to remake the world — dwindling admist the realities of activistism. The idea that no one has to be sacrificed for the good to occur is revolutionary. Most people I encounter hold the opposite view. It's at the root of a leveling sense of equality — the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth/value and one has to give up one's share to allow others to flourish.

[quoting Aster] "and yes- one can find touching friendship with those who do evil and find the deepest kind of happiness."

Do you mind elaborating on this?

— Nick Manley, 7 May 2009, 9:11am

Marja Erwin:


I think your argument equivocates between two senses of happiness, and collapses what should motivate us into what does motivate us.

In particular, the arguments regarding life insurance are less than convincing. An individual may not trust the hypothetical pill – it an unnerving situation – or may fear the short-term unhappiness of choosing the false belief over the long-term happiness of falsely believing he has purchased life insurance.

Aster has noted that kittens are never happier than when they (the kittens, not Aster) are torturing smaller animals. A rational cat's sense of happiness might well offend our sense of the good life. A moral theory which ignores our nature as biological creatures, adapted to certain niches and behaviors, has little power to motivate us without alienating us from ourselves. A moral theory which ignores our nature as rational creatures has little power to correct our mistakes and prevent injustice. I fear that a moral theory which equivocates between the two will combine the problems of each.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 2:05pm



I think your argument equivocates between two senses of happiness, and collapses what should motivate us into what does motivate us.

How so? At what point(s) do I make this equivocation?

In particular, the arguments regarding life insurance are less than convincing. An individual may not trust the hypothetical pill – it an unnerving situation – or may fear the short-term unhappiness of choosing the false belief over the long-term happiness of falsely believing he has purchased life insurance.

OK, but that's changing the hypothetical situation. What I'm claiming is that even in the case as I described it, when people do trust the pill etc., they still wouldn't prefer it. And for this I simply appeal to the reader's self-knowledge.

I fear that a moral theory which equivocates between the two will combine the problems of each.

Again, OK, but how and where, precisely, do you think mine equivocates between the two?



We may be deluding ourselves about the pill. The idea that we would prefer the false memory to life insurance is justifiably disturbing. If the false memory is unreliable, then it is not worth the money. If the false memory is reliable, that implies exceeding vulnerability in other matters. Our fear and queeziness will bias our responses to the thought-experiment. I don't think either of us knows how we would respond without that fear.

Furthermore, if the false memory is absolutely reliable, so that we might research some other topic, discover that our insurance account is missing, discover that our pill-taking appointment took place, etc. and still believe we bought the insurance, the example challenges our ability to know anything at all.

On the other issue, I think you need to show why MaxPref necessarily includes agent-neutral considerations.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009 3:39pm


We may be deluding ourselves about the pill.

I can't imagine why we would be; at any rate, the burden of proof seems to lie with those who say we are.

I think you need to show why MaxPref necessarily includes agent-neutral considerations.

So what do you think is wrong with the argument I gave?

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 4:51pm



[Quoting from Roderick’s paper, linked above. –R.G.]

The point is not that agent-neutral ethical norms can somehow be derived from agent-neutral linguistic norms; the point is rather that once such a thing as agent-neutral value is so much as recognised, it must forthwith be integrated into one's MaxPref. Thus, although happiness is in some sense an agent-relative value, it turns out to include agent-neutral value as a necessary component.

Since you concede neither the survival-based argument nor the language-based argument justifies this assertion, it seems unclear, as if you are begging the question.

I can't imagine why we would be; at any rate, the burden of proof seems to lie with those who say we are.

I don’t believe in burden of proof. Anyway, although we come to the same decision in the thought experiment, I’m wondering if we come to the same decision for the reasons you describe, or others which do not support your argument. I would like to see a version which removes these issues, but I’m not sure there can be one.

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 6:08pm



Since you concede neither the survival-based argument nor the language-based argument justifies this assertion, it seems unclear, as if you are begging the question.

No, they’re two different assertions. My claim was that these other arguments fail to derive agent-neutral from agent-relative value. In other words, there is (so far as I can tell) no argumentative path that starts from purely agent-relative value with no agent-neutral dimension and somehow gets from there to agent-neutral value. It’s the attempts to provide arguments like that that I’m rejecting. But what I was trying to show is that we “always already” start with agent-neutral value indispensably woven into our perspective.

By analogy: there’s no way to get from inside the event horizon of a black hole to the outside. (Aside: at least that’s the science I was taught as a young’un; I gather that theory is in flux now, but let’s assume it for the sake of the example.) But it doesn’t follow that there’s no way to be outside the event horizon; there is a way, but it involves already being outside to begin with. And if I claim that we’re already outside the event horizon, that doesn’t mean that I’m claiming to have found a new way to get out of the event horizon.

I don't believe in burden of proof.

Can you explain what you mean?

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 7:24pm


In my understanding, burdens of proof are methods for choosing one position, when there is no compelling argument or evidence for any of two or more alternatives.

If there is a compelling argument, then there is no need to fall back on a burden of proof.

If there are multiple compelling arguments, then we may choose one working hypothesis, or multiple working hypotheses, on various grounds (elegance, explanatory completeness, etc.).

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 8:00 pm


In my understanding, burdens of proof are methods for choosing one position, when there is no compelling argument or evidence for any of two or more alternatives.

Oh, that’s not how I understand it. I think that if there’s strong evidence for p, that shifts the burden of proof to the deniers of p, but it doesn’t make the concept of “burden of proof” inapplicable.

I also think, though, that if it seems to be the case that p, that by itself shifts the burden of proof to the deniers of p, even if there’s no evidence for p beyond its seeming so. (In other words, seemings count as evidence — in the broad sense, not an inferential sense) So although we could conceivably be mistaken about our motivations in the life insurance case, if it seems to us that out motivation is such and such, we’re entitled to treat it as so until shown good reason otherwise. That’s what I meant in saying that the burden of proof lies with the denier. But I don’t take the life insurance case to be one in which the initial evidence is equally balanced.

Maybe I should make clear that I’m relying on a coherentist rather than a foundationalist (at least in the usual sense of “foundationalist”) approach to epistemic justification; see here.

— Roderick T. Long, 8 May 2009, 8:35pm – 8:38pm.


Mine has been shaped by an awareness of my own and other people's bad reasoning habits. I used to be a system-builder; now I try to be a system-breaker. I probably ought to re-read Sextus Empiricus, I think I'd appreciate him more now than before,

— Marja Erwin, 8 May 2009, 9:32pm



Problem is, if you start with the default assumption of your own and everyone else’s bad reasoning habits, you run the risk of undermining your very ability to identify bad reasoning — because how do you know that your argument for such-and-such’s being bad reasoning isn’t itself bad reasoning? Sextus thinks this will lead to a salutary suspension of judgment about everything, but it seems to me more likely to lead to people just picking whatever belief feels good to them, because hey, it’s no more problematic than everything else.

— Roderick T. Long, 9 May 2009, 9:42am


[Replying to an anecdote from Roderick about college Randians and Kant.]

I think that Kant was intellectually dishonest in some aspects off his project- I think he did wish to force philosophy to re-establish the essentials of Christianity. The postulates are embarassingly lame.

Then again, how can you read !!!@@e2;20ac;2dc;What is Enlightenment' or !!!@@e2;20ac;2dc;Perpetual Peace' and totally hate the guy? He may have kicked out some crucial philosophical precondition for the open society, but he was also the first to formulate certain absolutely priority one crucial planks of its program.

. . .

— Aster, 10 May 2009 1:23am


I think he did wish to force philosophy to re-establish the essentials of Christianity.

I agree; and I think his argument for the necessity of religious belief is embarrassingly bad. But I don't think his major moves were motivated primarily by that. What's most important to me in Kant is his anti-psychologism; but I think in both his metaphysics and his ethics he tripped himself up.

In metaphysics he correctly (from my point of view) saw that there are conceptual constraints on what kind of world we can make sense of — but then he slid into thinking that these constraints were imposed on the world by the logical structure of our minds, and so got what Strawson calls the "austere" and "transcendental" sides of his thesis entangled.

In ethics he correctly (again from my point of view, of course) saw that ethics needed to be grounded in the conceptual structure of agency itself and not just in appetites and sentiments. But because he had a fairly crude conception of happiness and left it to the domain of appetites and sentiments, his rescue operation on morality resulted in widening rather than narrowing the gulf between morality and self-interest; whereas I'd have preferred him to follow the Greeks in grounding both in the structure of agency and so keeping them together.

— Roderick T. Long, 10 May 2009 7:49am

Setting aside my editor hat, and putting my contributor hat back on, here’s some remarks on the discussion so far.

First, I certainly agree with Marja that there is more than one sense of the word happiness out there; and it may well be that, in one sense of that word — the sense of the word in which happiness names some kind of psychological condition of sustained pleasure or satisfaction or contentment — it will be the case that a vampire can live a happy life by destroying or damning innocent victims, and that, in general, there’s no philosophical guarantee that human happiness requires, or is even promoted by, either reason or morality. But if happiness is being used in the sense of the condition that is the object of self-interest for intelligent beings, then things get much more complicated. It’s tempting to think that you already understand perfectly well what happiness is, just intuitively, pre-philosophically, without needing to refer to knowledge or reason or moral virtue; that it must be something simple and obvious from casual inspection, and that the thing to do is to grasp that understanding of happiness in hand and then see if it links up in any important ways with knowledge or reason or moral virtue. But I think that that is already to take a wrong step — that it involves a false confidence that cannot hold up under Socratic reflection. Because if happiness (as we’re using the term) is the object of self-interest, then to understand what happiness is, you have to understand what self-interest is, and, while many people very confidently believe that they have a simple account of that (that self-interest is felt pleasure, or the satisfaction of desires, or metabolic survival, or having beautiful things), any serious understanding of self-interest will be intimately connected with knowing something about the nature of the self that has the interest — understanding something about what sort of being you are, and also understanding something about the form of life that sort of being enjoys. In the case of the human being, that very quickly leads you into a discussion of reason, creativity, knowledge, and rational conduct — not just as tools that we wield to get some further good, but also as part and parcel of who and what we are, and as essential to understanding how we dwell on this earth. To get clear on what makes us happy we must slow down and think it through; to think it through well, we must also think through some things about ourselves, and I think that clarity on that necessarily complicates any conception of happiness away from simple psychologistic accounts, and towards accounts that treat knowledge of the truth, rationality, moral virtue, and so on as constituent aspects of a truly happy life.

In reply to Marja on kittens, I do not know whether or not kittens are never happier than when they’re torturing smaller creatures. But if it’s true, it’s precisely because kittens are not the sort of creature that participates in the sort of rationality that human beings do; it should be no surprise that what’s good for a kitten is not always the same as what’s good for a human being, and making a distinction on the basis of human beings’ natural capacities for rational deliberation, creativity, and sympathetic understanding hardly involves ignoring our nature as biological creatures! It’s precisely because of the special faculties we are born with that human creatures have a different standard to live up to.

In reply to Marja on life insurance and the Pill, I think that feeling queasiness about choosing the delusion-pill over real life insurance tends to support Roderick’s point, not to undermine it. If the prospect of choosing a delusion-pill (in order to save money) is, as Marja claims, justifiable, then it seems like the queasiness is an indication of the fact that there is something defective about taking the pill over the life-insurance. (If the pill really does serve my interests just as well or better than the life-insurance, then the queasiness would be irrational, not justifiable.) Or, to take things from the other end, think of what you would say about somebody acting without that fear, who felt no queasiness and so boldly chose the delusion-pill over the life-insurance — what you would say, specifically, about his attitudes towards his family. It seems like this would be a paradigm case of someone who has hardened himself against any kind of concern for other people, to the point of callousness or even cruelty. But I don’t see why, in this case, compassion is being counted as a bias in the thought-experimenter and callousness is not; I think that there’s a lot more merit in arguing that the compassion-motivated queasiness Marja describes is, just as such, more reasonable than callousness, and that the callous deliberator would be the one choosing under a bias against perceiving all the relevant factors in the thought-experiment. Emotional sensitivity does not always distort; emotions can and do reveal relevant aspects of reality, and it is often emotional deadness that would make for a bias in responding to a hypothetical moral dilemma. (For what it’s worth, I discuss the topic of bringing this sort of second-order reflection to bear on thought-experiments, or a topic that’s at least tangentially related to that, in Intuition-Pumping for Fun and Profit.)

In reply to Nick on kindness, I think that it has been underrated because most of the conversation about morality through most of recorded history has been dominated by men’s voices and men’s concerns, and there are specific reasons why patriarchal discussions of morality have centered on virtues like courage (especially martial courage) and justice (especially legalistic or retributive or revolutionary conceptions of justice), while shoving kindness and other forms of caring out to the margins of morality, or out of morality entirely into the realm of etiquette or niceness. I also agree with you that morality doesn’t demand that a Jew be kind to an SA stormtrooper; but there are lots of virtues we’re not always called on to exercise (e.g. gratitude is a virtue, but virtue doesn’t require that I be grateful to anyone and everyone). And I think it’s important to see the difference between saying that the virtue of kindness makes no demands on a Jew with regard to a stormtrooper, and the quite different claim that a Jew would be justified in exercising the opposite vice, by being cruel to a stormtrooper. My position is not that it would be immoral not to be kind in that context, but rather that it would be immoral to be actively cruel, which is something different from just not being kind. The difference is indeed closely related to the difference between anger and hatred.

What do y'all think? Fire when ready in the comments.

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  1. Mike Gogulski

    What do y’all think?

    I’m thinking that if I have the opportunity to do so, and if he’s agreeable, I’m going to write one Charles “Rad Geek” Johnson into my contracts as arbitrator.

  2. Gabriel

    I don’t really understand this idea of happiness not being identifiable with psychological states. Trujillo had a bad end, but I’m accustomed to thinking of fat, wealthy dictators that die in their beds surrounded by fawning toadies and their pregnant harem as being pretty damn happy. They are wicked and evil, and their wickedness makes the fact that they enjoy great food, money, and power all the more detestable. Saying that their lives are really miserable has a Socratic (Sophistic?) sound to it; no offense to you personally Charles, but the argument sounds like something Nietzchean slaves would be whispering in the kitchen to help make their miserable enslavement more tolerable. Anyway, someone like Augustus might be a better example for discussion than Trujillo, since his death was a happier one than the Dominican Dictator.

  3. Soviet Onion

    Saying that their lives are really miserable has a Socratic (Sophistic?) sound to it; no offense to you personally Charles, but the argument sounds like something Nietzchean slaves would be whispering in the kitchen to help make their miserable enslavement more tolerable

    How dare you bring plainly observable reality into this!

  4. Marja Erwin

    I think a strong connection between morality and happiness is supposed to avoid the problems of explaining why someone should be moral. Asking why someone should be moral seems as strange as asking why someone should accept valid arguments.

    And I apologize to Clarisse for using her name for the hypothetical vampire. I hope she is still enjoying life, 120 years later, in another reality.

  5. Roderick T. Long


    Well, but Nietzsche doesn’t seem to have a hedonistic or subjective-experientialist conception of happiness either. His whole conception of nobility is an important point of contact with t he Greek eudaimonists.

    In any case, Socrates and others in his tradition have offered what I regard as pretty compelling arguments for a non-subjectivist conception of happiness. Dismissing their positions because they remind you of something Nietzschean slaves might say, rather than actually engaging with their arguments, seems like a non-move in the discussion.

  6. Nick Manley


    In my own experience: there is a point at which being kind can endanger you and leave you open to blatant exploitation. With no pretensions of turning you into my therapist: I must rationally mention having a troubled friend since childhood who would repeatedly lie to me ~ mostly fairly innocuous entertaining tales but more severe ones. I would feel guilty about the prospect of completely shutting him out of my life ~ involuntary emotionalist Christian kindness? I suppose.

    This kind of experience lends factual support to the Randian critique of altruism. I don’t speak to him much anymore and did confront him on certain things ~ e.g. he thought people learned better through fear. A really good encapsulation of what Miller and anti-patriarchal thinkers have criticized.

    Based on your expanded philosophic commentary, I don’t get the impression you would find this morally problematic. If so, then we have a disagreement. I would characterize myself as acting unkindly but not cruelly. I don’t particularly hate this person. He’s the victim of child abuse and has some enduring issues. I would wish him well a la Roderick Long’s distinction between anger and hatred. I view it as being in my rational self-interest to see cruel destructive people change their way of life ~ a world of beautiful happy people is a place to find objective value. I may not spend my precious time around them, but I wouldn’t judge a “reformed” person by past standards. That strikes me as patently irrational and unfair to that person – in the Randian sense of earned or unearned treatment.

    We need a definition of cruelty, anger, and hatred to really make this conversation philosophically rigorous. Do you care to provide your own precise ones? I will respond in kind.

  7. Roderick T. Long


    Well, Socrates, Aristotle, et al. would say that the appropriate objects, degree, and form of kindness will be context-sensitive. Likewise courage involves correctly judging when danger should not be faced as well as when it should, generosity involves correctly judging when people should not be helped as well as when they should, etc.

  8. Rad Geek


    Well. Like I said, there’s more than one meaning of happiness on offer. If you want to use happiness just to mean some configuration of psychological states over time, then you’re welcome to do so, and I’d freely agree that a successful tyrant or a vampire or a well-placed clam might be perfectly happy in that sense.

    But my point is, again, that there are other senses of the word happiness that are on offer, where that’s no longer so clear. I gave one example above when I asked whether or not a marriage can be counted as a happy marriage when one partner is successfully hiding a secret life of cheating and betraying and demeaning the other. I don’t think that it can be; to describe it as a happy marriage (hey, well, she never found out!) would be clearly to abuse the term. And, secondly, there’s a sense of the word happiness that’s very closely connected with what self-interest recommends choosing. But if so, how psychologistic your account of happiness can be is going to depend, in part, on how psychologistic your account of self-interest can be. It may seem to you like it should be obvious that certain psychological states (like pleasure or satisfaction or contentment), or the absence of certain others (like pain or frustration) are just as such in the interest of whoever can get them, regardless of the source of the psychological state or the absence. But I don’t agree that that’s obvious; in fact, I think that reflection reveals it to be wrong, that some enjoyments (for example) are not in the interest of the person who indulges in them, not only because they might happen to casually interfere with some other desired object, but in fact because the enjoyment itself, to the extent that it’s enjoyed, involves leading an ugly and a rotten sort of life, and so attacks constituent aspects of what it means to say that a human being is doing well for herself.

    I’m accustomed to thinking of fat, wealthy dictators that die in their beds surrounded by fawning toadies and their pregnant harem as being pretty damn happy.

    Well, why? Would you be happy with that sort of life?

    Saying that their lives are really miserable has a Socratic (Sophistic?) sound to it

    Well, it ought to have a Socratic sound, since it’s Socrates’s view. If Sophistic refers to the actual Sophists, then they largely would disagree with the view; it’s partly in criticism of the views of, e.g. Gorgias and Protagoras, that Socrates developed his own position.

    Anyway, someone like Augustus might be a better example for discussion than Trujillo, since his death was a happier one than the Dominican Dictator.

    Well, Trujillo had a rough time of it right toward the end, and he went out like the gangster he was, but he got in a few decades of more or less porcine contentment with the state of affairs. If your view is that happiness is just a matter of positive psychological states then it seems like you ought to conclude that he lived a happy sort of life for, say, 2/3 of his rule. If you took a balance of the pleasures over the pains he’d probably come out ahead on net; I’m not sure why the manner of his death outweigh that unless you’re already moving beyond a purely psychologistic account and towards an account that lays some emphasis on, say, expressing a particular kind of narrative structure in the life as a whole, above and beyond just summing up positive states over negative ones.

    As for Augustus, I think that, on a purely psychologistic account of his life, in spite of the fact that he went out with more of what he wanted in the end than Trujillo did, the way he did so was to lead a life that involved a lot more psychological isolation (due to his all-consuming duplicity), self-denial, and ultimately self-torment than the life of an open and self-satisfied thug like Trujillo.

    But, whatevs. Choose whatever satisfied prince or potenate you like as an example.

    […] the argument sounds like something Nietzchean slaves would be whispering in the kitchen to help make their miserable enslavement more tolerable.

    Well, I don’t think that Nietzsche is actually defending a psychologistic understanding of happiness. But anyway, this sounds like a diagnosis, not a refutation.

    I think a strong connection between morality and happiness is supposed to avoid the problems of explaining why someone should be moral. Asking why someone should be moral seems as strange as asking why someone should accept valid arguments.

    I agree with you about the last, but I think that’s a reason to favor the eudaimonistic view, not a reason to be skeptical of the need for it. It’s precisely because psychologistic conceptions of self-interest — therefore also of happiness — land you in a situation where it seems like there’s some kind of explanatory gap to be bridged — because they raise the question of how you adjudicate a dispute between a should of morality and a should of self-interest, without, I think, providing any way of doing so that doesn’t either beg the question or else end up just reducing the one kind of should to the other — that I prefer eudaimonistic accounts of happiness over psychologistic accounts.


    Well, but, again, my view is not that the virtue of kindness involves some kind of unlimited accommodation towards other people regardless of their personal qualities or the context of the relationship.

    As for definitions, I think that the terms you’re asking for definitions of are actually ethically and philosophically basic in such a way that they cannot be defined non-trivially. But I think we can say something precise about some of the necessary conditions and about the conceptual relationships among the main terms. For example, the distinction between anger and hatred, as Roderick makes it, has to do with a wish for harm, whereas anger involves only a wish for confrontation, which is not the same. Kindness involves, among other things, sympathetic concern for others’ comfort, and also the concrete expression of that concern with an effort to help; but concern must be for the right people, in the right way, to the right degree, at the right times, etc.; its opposite vices include callousness, which involves a defect of sympathetic concern, and cruelty, which involves a reversal of the concern, from sympathetic to sadistic. The kind of cases you’re worried about not really cases of being somehow too kind; they’re cases in which the kind of concern and help normally exercised in kindness, but are being distorted towards the wrong object, or to the wrong degree, or for the wrong qualities, or, or, or…, in such a way that it oversteps the bounds of kindness and comes into conflict with the kinds of concern for your own well-being demanded by prudence, or concern for truth demanded by honesty, or concern for third parties demanded by solidarity, or what have you.

  9. Gabriel

    I actually tried searching for examples among other dictators, and also the Roman Emperors. I had a tough time of it because about half met violent, miserable deaths. There’s probably a moral in there somewhere…

    I guess the reason I brought up the manner of death is because I do in fact want to believe a conception of happiness grounded in a being’s self-interest precludes the domination and “porcine contentment” of Trujillo. Maybe it does, or maybe it only precludes the domination and not necessarily the hedonism. At any rate, like Aster, I am sympathetic to the Socratic view that those who hurt others for pleasure, living “porcine” lives of brutality and thuggery, are really miserable, but I can’t bring myself to accept it. Maybe I’ve been living with a psychological account of happiness for so long it’s hard to really fathom an alternative. :/

  10. Vichy

    I think the notion of linking rationality to values is absurd to begin with – non sequitur. Values are given, and although rationality (and other mental processes people mistakenly label rationality) have an influence on what we consider to be our interests, and what interests we follow – interests are interests, and can not be disputed, contradicted, disproven, critiqued, etc. Only methods, not aims.

    Reason is a capacity, not a commandment; reason is quite literally pointless.

  11. Roderick T. Long


    But once we recognise the possibility of constitutive rather than merely instrumental means (i.e., of means that are part of the end rather than just being external strategies for achieving it), then the dichotomy between reasoning about means and reasoning about the character of the end dissolves.

  12. Sergio Méndez


    First, thank you very much for this post. I think it is one of your best, and, at least on a personal level, I must admit I was more than moved by your arguments. If in the last year I´ve become more and more convinced of the value of rereading the greeks, and their theory of justice, now I can say I am almost sure that you are on the right track (as you have shown me in the past concerning libertarianism and its relations with the left).

    I just have one question…Why should we embrace one definition of hapiness over any other? What is the criteria in your opinion (or profesor´s Long one)?

  13. Roderick T. Long

    I don’t care that much about the narrowly terminological issue; if someone wants to use the term “happiness” for the psychological state, I won’t get that upset, so long as that’s not taken to settle the substantive question of what kind of life is worth pursuing.

    Still, I do prefer using the term “happiness” in the Aristotelean way — partly because it’s the standard translation of the terms that are used in the Aristotelean tradition, and partly because once one realises that “happiness” is the traditional term for doing well or being in a good state, and that the subjectivist way of using the term “happiness” that we have today arose from a particular philosophical conception of what it is to do well rather than being part of the meaning, “happiness” then feels like the natural term once again.

  14. Rad Geek


    Thank you for the kind words. I’m glad if the post has been helpful.

    If we’re just talking about different definitions of the word happiness or happy, then I don’t think that one is right and the other is wrong; the word just has two different senses, one of them strictly psychological, and the other (as seen for example in a happy marriage, a happy day, a happy life) having something more to do with an objective notion of flourishing, involving at least some non-psychological constituent aspects. Call the first sense happiness-as-feeling and the second sense happiness-as-flourishing. If people want to use the word happiness to mean happiness-as-feeling they’re welcome to it; my concern is merely to insist that the second sense of the word exists, that it involves things not included in the first sense, and, importantly, that it’s the second sense of the word, happiness-as-flourishing, not happiness-as-feeling, which is conceptually linked with other important concepts in the neighborhood, perhaps most importantly self-interest (the ultimate object of which is one’s own happiness in the second sense; not necessarily in the first) and benevolence (the ultimate object of which is the happiness of others, again in the second, not necessarily the first sense).

    Now, on some conceptions of human flourishing — the psychologistic ones — there is nothing to flourishing but having certain positive feelings to a certain degree, or in a certain way over time. If those theories are true, then you will have happiness-as-flourishing where and only where you also have happiness-as-feeling. But what’s important here is to see that this is a substantive philosophical position, in need of defense, and that the two terms can’t just be run together as synonymous if no such defense is forthcoming. So, for example, to realize that if an argument turns on a conception of self-interest, that that doesn’t yet mean that it turns only on psychological outcomes; if there are good reasons to reject strictly psychologistic theories of flourishing (as I think there are), then, when happiness-as-feeling and happiness-as-flourishing come apart, it’s happiness-as-flourishing, and not happiness-as-feeling, that claims about self-interest will track. The important thing is not so much to try and stop people from using happiness to mean happiness-as-feeling, but rather just to make sure that they are not equivocating between that and happiness-as-flourishing, or using an unargued identification of the two in order to push an argument about, say, the recommendations of self-interest.

    So, for example, on my view a lot of the arguments about supposed gaps between morality and self-interest (and the theories that, presuming the gap exists, try to bridge it by appealing to social contracts or iterated prisoner’s dilemmas or other instrumental justifications for morality), are based either on a simple equivocation, or else on a presumed and unargued claim about the nature of a happy life for a human being, which is at least in need of a substantive defense, and which, as a matter of fact, I think cannot hold up under scrutiny. (For many of the usual reasons: considerations about Experience Machines, life-insurance cases and other cases having to do with providing for outcomes after your death, Socratic concerns about the unity of virtue, concerns about the necessary conditions for having lived what could be called a beautiful or an ugly life, etc., etc., etc.) The thing to do when these sorts of arguments are made is not so much to plump for using the word with one definition over using it with some other, but rather to dialectically engage with your interlocutor’s use of happiness and related terms, either to show them the equivocation, or else to interrogate their understanding of flourishing that they’re bringing in to the argument, in order to get them to consider complications that show them that they do not actually have the simple intuitive grasp of self-interest that they thought that they had, that it does require some further reflection and deliberation about, e.g., the nature of the self, and that it may call for de-psychologizing their conception of happiness-as-flourishing, and revising their understanding of the constituents of a good life.

  15. Aster

    I’d very much like to enter into discussion, and thank Rad Geek for holding it, but I’ll have to wait until my biological systems are a but more together.

    If I could crudely sketch my position, I would asy that I feel confident in choosing eudominia over philosophical hedonism. But I also think there are forms of eudaimonism that focus on pleasure or hedonism in the common sense, whether that be perfection od ecellence in prostitution or chocolate manufacture.

    I am very quesy about most philosopical formulations of eudaiminism, however, including both Rand and Aristotle’s for the reason Marja first suggested. Any theory which claims that one can be objectively happy while subjectively meaningful is just giving masochistic goodness a new name. I stil think the eudaimonistic idea is good, but it typically comes with some degree of stuffy Platonist or Thomist corruption attached.

    Where I’m less certain: eudaimonism can justify complete, intertegrated, purpoeful happiness over vulgar hedonism easily, but you can do this, as Kaufmann’s Nietzshe does, without extending this principle to lead to a humistic regard for others. I definitely think that being surrounded by fawning slaves and pregnant concubines sounds revolting and degrading and incomptible with the best life- if you have taste, you’ll instead want to be surrounded with friends who are equals, and mistresses with brains. That certainly covers some round towards humanism or rights-respecting behaviour.

    But it doesn’t cover all of it, particularly in cases of 1) socially ingrained situations of class dominance, where one is ealing with others who have already been ruined beyond the capacity of friendship, and 2) emergency sitatuions. The first deeply bothers me. The second doesn’t, and here I’ willing to simply say that is situations where social peace breaks down rights don’t aplly, and this is just a fact of nature.

    I wouldn’t take the position if being dictator if I found it lying by the roadside, but I suspect I would take a zillion dollars if I found THAT lyin by the roadside, and wouldn’t lose much sleep over the fact that I’d quickly find he best way to invest the money which left me the minimum of hassles and the maximum of freedom. And if the money was of a small enough to be meaningfully scarce, I doubt all of my investments would be pure as silk. I’ve never met a happy Augustus or Trujillo, but I have met happy people who played a nasty class game, won, and kept their independence. And while Objectivists would count this as ethically free and clear, as a left-libertarian I can’t and don’t.

    I do think that ethial issues ae usally discussed with a sense that all humanly tolerable people must ome to certain preordained conclusions- some of hem true, others of them false- and that this isn’t helpful for philosophical discourse. In the modern West, thes ethical precexpectations nearly always reduce to the cultural assumptions of Christianity.

    I hope that made sense. Must lie down now.

  16. Roderick T. Long


    Any theory which claims that one can be objectively happy while subjectively meaningful is just giving masochistic goodness a new name.

    I don’t understand that sentence. I suspect “meaningful” was an error for something else?

    Guessing (perhaps wrongly) that what was supposed to go in place of “meaningful” was something like “unhappy” or “in pain,” I would say in response that only some versions of eudaimonism allow objective happiness to coincide with subjective suffering. The Stoics did hold that virtue was sufficient for happiness, so that even if you were being tortured on the rack, as long as you were virtuous you were happy. But Aristotle disagrees — his view is that virtue is necessary for happiness but not sufficient, and he says that no one would say you can be happy on the rack unless they were “defending a thesis” — a line that has generated predictable jokes in academia. Aristotle does think that you’re always happier with virtue than without it, so it’s better to be the virtuous person who’s tortured than the wicked person who’s not tortured (and you may find that claim objectionable already), but he’s clear in holding that those are both ways of being unhappy. As for Plato, in some of his works he seems to defend the strong Stoic thesis, while in other works he seems to retreat to the less radical Aristotelean one.

    Incidentally, have you read Cicero’s De Finibus? In the last book he lays out the options rather nicely.

    I have met happy people who played a nasty class game, won, and kept their independence. And while Objectivists would count this as ethically free and clear, as a left-libertarian I can’t and don’t.

    But why do you call them happy? If it’s just because they “wouldn’t lose much sleep” over it, that’s the subjectivist criterion again, no?

  17. Marja Erwin

    Unfortunately, it’s possible for people to do evil, without recognizing it as evil, and it is possible for people to do good, and feel consumed with guilt. Sometimes I wonder if sociopaths are happier than the rest of us – under any possible psychological definition of happiness.

  18. Rad Geek


    Unfortunately, it’s possible for people to do evil, without recognizing it as evil, and it is possible for people to do good, and feel consumed with guilt.

    Sure. I agree with you about that. My view is not attached to any secret faith in retributive psychology, any more than it’s attached to a secret faith in a retributive afterlife where the wicked will be spitted and roasted for their sins. The claim that they are really leading a miserable life is a claim of quite a different kind.

    What I do think is that, when a Trujillo is perfectly pleased to go on wallowing in the kind of life that he leads, the unalloyed pleasure that he takes makes it more miserable, not less. The fact that he can honestly tell you that he’s living his dream, tells you something about the kind of dreams he has. And I think that the kind of dreams he has tells you something about his life — something which is really very sad.

  19. Aster


    Yes, I meant ‘miserable’, not ‘meaningful’. Apologies. The screen is doing funny swimming things in front of me.

    I don’t remember if I’ve read de finibus, but I am familiar with the general Aristotelian and Stoic theories in question.

    Rad Geek-

    I really don’t see how your response to the Trujillo example amounts to anything more than: ‘he’s happy, but I morally despise his happiness’. I feel confident myself to say that his happiness is inferior in degree and kind to the happiness possible to somene who hasn’t maimed their sensibilities as a Trujillo must have and who is even moderately successful in their endeavour, but that’s not the same claim as the one you are making. The trouble is that your theory seems to me to rephrase the position that virtue is more important than happiness, while as an egoist I don’t see virtue as a valuable concept outside of its constitutive or instrumental contribution to happiness. I feel like my own theory leaves open the possibility of someone who happily engages in certain kinds of harm to others, while your theory in the end demands that people place goodness over happiness. But goodness without happiness is in my eyes a senseless Moloch- if something does not and is not intended to make an agent happy, there’s no meaningful sense in which is could be good.

    Part of the reason why I end up as more-or-less a minarchist, in contrast to most here, is because I’m not confident that rational human beings can be dissuaded from some unacceptable level of interpersonal aggression without standing force to prevent a Hobbesian situation which is contrary to everyone’s rational interest (whether that standing force inevitably causes its own unacceptable unintended consequences is a severable issue). This is a messy and uninspiring position, but I far prefer it to a standing moral demand that individuals be prepared to sacrifice their happiness to ‘virtue’, which is restraining in a deeper and more damaging way. I don’t see how one can advocate unblemished egoism and unblemished anarchism without a robust theory that proves that agressing against others is never in a person’s interest in a non-emergency situation.

    I would very must like to have such a theory demonstrated. My experience with Objectivists has been that most will respond to the issue by screaming accusations of immorality (while blatantly engaging in socially acceptable forms of class aggression themselves), or (in rare cases) with a friendly wink and a nudge that you’ve successfully qualified for the superior in-group and are forgiven higher immoralities as an excellent person admitted to the elite. In other words, Objectivist egoism turns out in practice to deliver the classic behaviour patterns of liberal aristocrats. And while you could build a consistent if vampiric ethic on this basis, you can’t build a social movement on it, or even a stable structural ideology without an alloy of repressive policing justified by the ‘common good’ (i.e., elite good) of the republic. Even then, it reduced the Randian platform to an unjust and unlovable prudent predation, e.g. Bioshock.

  20. Marja Erwin


    I think you define your political requirements too strongly. I’m unconvinced by the arguments concerning egoism. I think, however, that even micro-states:

    1. Create more non-emergency situations where one person has the opportunity to benefit from aggression, or lose from non-aggression.

    2. Create more emergency situations.

  21. Aster


    “I think you define your political requirements too strongly.”

    Pardon? Please explain.

    “I’m unconvinced by the arguments concerning egoism.”

    Well, I believe that as I’m an egoist, and you’re a Christian, there ultimately can be no reasonable resolution between us. I find that a great shame, as you have an astounding mind. I know you don’t believe in Hell, but I’ll still miss your company when I go there.

    I might well agree on the rest, but as I said I view these as severable issues. My discussion on minarchism vs. anarchism was meant to highlight the ethical problems I was raising, not to point to them directly.

    Oddly, I find myself slightly favouring a minarchist goal but support most of Rad Geek’s reasons for refusing the minarchist train ride model, primarily because I consider the cops to be practical enemies (on Stirnerite, class, feminist, an agorist grounds). I’ll support the legitmately of territorial units which approximate liberal democracies (as an alternative to reactionary secessionisms) but do not respect their illibertarian laws or claims to sovereignty over my life. I’m not convinced of anarchism as the desirable end-state, but I’ve never seen any rationality in the intense anger many minarchists seem to have towards anarchists… even in the most rational Objectivist cases, it seems to be based upon middle class respectability and classist fear of the poor.

    For the present, I’m happy to neutrally go along with either anarchists or minarchists. I’ve been on the edge of the issue for 19 years now with no resolution in sight, and don’t want to quarrel over it.

  22. Marja Erwin


    I don’t see how one can advocate unblemished egoism and unblemished anarchism without a robust theory that proves that agressing against others is never in a person’s interest in a non-emergency situation.

    I mean, I don’t see why such a robust theory is necessary in order to defend the conjunction of egoism and anarchism. I certainly don’t see why it is necessary in order to rationally advocate anarchism.

  23. Roderick T. Long


    I suspect the “unblemished” is doing a lot of the work.

  24. Sergio Méndez

    he trouble is that your theory seems to me to rephrase the position that virtue is more important than happiness, while as an egoist I don’t see virtue as a valuable concept outside of its constitutive or instrumental contribution to happiness. I feel like my own theory leaves open the possibility of someone who happily engages in certain kinds of harm to others, while your theory in the end demands that people place goodness >over happiness.

    Aster, I think there lies what I see, correct me if I am wrong, your misunderstanding of Roderick´s and Charles aristotelian theory of happiness. From their point of view the dichotomy between happiness and goodness. I think that what they are trying to say is that such dichotomy, a modern philosophical invention, is a false one.

    I think aristoteles and Rand aren`t the only ones who have noted it: Have you read anything about marxist contemporary critical theory? When people like Adorno and Horckheimer denounce how the prevalence of what they call “instrumental reason” in modern thought (the idea that reason only serves us as a tool to achieve anything we want) is the root of many of our evils (specially totalitarism), they are pointing to something similar. Reason, properly understood, seems to be an integral concept where its ethical aspect is fundamentally tied to its instrumental purposes.

  25. Roderick T. Long

    Right — indeed I’ve argued that the reason Aristotle thinks it’s okay to enslave Persians is that they lack a sense of nobility and use reason only instrumentally.

    Of course this was self-serving nonsense, but the interesting core, once one sheds the racist and pro-slavery crap, is the strong critique of merely instrumental reason.

  26. Nick "Natasha" Manley


    You and I have discussed egoist morality before, but I don’t specifically recall your objections ~ its been awhile.

    My problem with your ethics is it strips you of any defense. You’ve told me stuff like you’d never assist the conviction of someone who committed a crime against you ~ any crime. I don’t believe you’d care if I mention this on here for purposes of discussion.

    You have a great sensitivity for the plight of others, but I simply can’t bring myself to rationally see the value in playing the Christ figure.

    You do possess an extremely bright mind. I’ve been provoked and stumped by it before. Please do continue voicing your thoughts in this discussion.

  27. Roderick T. Long

    Well, I believe that as I’m an egoist, and you’re a Christian, there ultimately can be no reasonable resolution between us.

    Is there necessarily a conflict between egoism and Christianity?

  28. Aster

    To all-

    I’ve been trying to formulate a reply today on the ethics issue, and have begun to suspect that the problem may lie more with terminology than with really. differences of principle. So I’ve decided it might bemore helpful it I first laid out where my problem is not, and then finished with more personal matters.

    I would find it very helpful is others, especially Rad Geek and Roderick Long, could breifly sketch out the nature of their own broad ethical views in ordinary language. Aristotle, for example, is certinly a standing point of referece in my own thinking about the of conduct oflife, but the identifiaction of a theory with the label ‘Aristotelian’ doesn’t neceassarily help with comprehension simply because there is too little consensus as the what Aristotle precisely meant, and the issues in dispute matter immensely here.

    I also thing there’s some confusion of several different concepions of the ethical issues surrounding egoism, Please let me be clear that I am not arguing that:

    1) we can understand what is in our rational self-inferest without careful reflection, conceptual thought, or attention to reality.

    2) that ethics can be intelligently pursued without reference to long term gains (that said, I do think most respectable philosopers can be far too easily dismissive to the short-term and to animal pleasure… some because they’re miserable and frustrated in this realm themselves, others becuase they’ve already made it and feel free to look down on the pig-people who still crave their own chance at pleasure and prosperity.

    3) that human actions can’t be spiritually dangerous in themseves, regardless of conequences. Simialrly, many of the most important regards in life, such as art and love, are ruined by atomisitic reductionism.

    4) ethics are relativist or subjectivist- temperament and context certianly alter the details of what makes sense to an individual, but that doesn’t change the point. Food, water, and shelter are good. Friendship, creativity, and cultural enrichment are also good. Freedom is good, as well as a reprerequsite for the other goods, That said, when people start defending these good outside the eventual context of what they can do to improve the happinessod human beings, I put myself on alert for luking Kantianisms and spooks.

    5) happiness is to defined primarily by wealth, status, and an endless supply of pina coladas. A certain amount of this is very good for ones happiness, and health risks aside turning down pleasure offered freely generally makes little sense (um, unless the pina colada comes with an unwritten price tag). But past a certain point there are additional and better things to discover. Of course, production and perfection under this sphere of pleasure can be as eudaimonstic as anything else- and the corrupt alliance between stuck-up classical conservatives and Christian pleasure-haters has had all sorts of culturally damaging effects. Note to Randians: you’re mammals. Get a life.

    6) intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic values occupy a small place of importance in the good life. I’ve heard Aristotle wrote somewhere than thinking was one of life’s two greatest pleasures, and while he was wrong, one can’t blame him for his honest ignorance of chocolate. Again, applying this principle wrongly (usually at least in part because of internalised social censure) starts giving the arts and humanities a boring name. Never trust an art teacher who talks loudly about ‘great art’ but doens’t passionately respond to either Thomas Cole or the Beatles. I honour scholars and such, but there’s no reason that a vibrant interior life should be seen as incompatible with a vibrant private life. Western philosophy would be in a better state if more intellectuals would start up businesses and learn to hang out in bars, preferably tasteful bars which can offer privacy, soft light, and quiet instrumental music. Academe has never completely got off the monastery, and it shows.

    7) that oppression and exploitation are an even vaguely sensible basis upon which to build a happy life. Try spending a day givingn orders and see what it does to you. Actually, don’t- it’s so damaging that this really may be philospher’s nightmare information that isn’t worth knowing. Friendship is unspeakable important and is only possible between equals. Teaching might sound like an exception, but I disagree- aproper teacjr recpognises a studentas relatively ignorant but equally capableof thinking and exploring- and that’s what matters (and for thatmatters the teachee is likely superior in some ways too… comprative advantage and all that) Anyway, despite possibilities of abuse I would say that the current cultural discouragement of closeness between students and teachings is a disastrous impediment to a rational culture. But the point is that a rational person wouldn’t knowingly oppress another who could be a meaningul potential friends. It’s spiritual murder seasoned with the horror of vurning a violin for firewood. That one sends you to the special kind of Hell.


    8) that receprocity is a dispensible or unnecesary value. Wrong. Mutual aid is fun, builds frienships, and lets you take advantage of a division of labour without idiot bosshattery. When others are willing to respectfully cooperare, reciprocity should be actively sought out. This is possible in a state of peace, which we all have good reasons to seek. But- there is a but- war is a reality (and not all wars are declareduse guns and knives), and there are times when other people stop falling into the cateogry of ‘potential friends and traders’ into the set of ‘people out to hurt you and ruin your day.’ I am in favour of state or rationally written nonstate guidelines to minimise the dangers of private preemption and restributing, but the point remains that states of peace can be broken. Human rights are contexual within the context of characteristically human relations. Dictators, police, and rapists don’t count. Bigots who ubjustly won’t even let you apply for human status don’t count. Nor does the person you’re fighting for the last lifeboat or parachute. People trapped in horrid situations have no good options and I see no sense in blaming and guilting people for doing the best they can. (I also agree with Rand that sometimes where are values selfishly more valuable than persistance in existence- I might rather save a person I love or my life’s creative masterpiece that persist in existence for a few more years Thankfully such situations are rare outside of romanticism and melodrama).

    (+) (+) (+)

    What I don’t understand is this; that Charles, and Roderick to a lesser extent suggest that some actions and aproached consitute ‘objective unhappiness’. Rand liked to throw around ‘objective’, and sometimes all she meant was that we need to look at reality, but other times she was trying to present complex concepts as if they were immediately and indisputably self-evident. So, what is ‘objective happiness’ supposed to mean here? If this concept doesn’t equate to one or more of the cases I used above, then I draw a blank. The issue may be one of translation (Roderick? Marja?) or semantics. But I can’t shake the sense that happiness as the name of an emotion is being switched for a homonym.

    I get strong nose twitches for Platonism and teleology at the suspicion of what ‘objective happiness’ might really point to. It sounds quite a bit like a life that is good and just… and we’ll all that happiness and claim theproblem is solved. That arguement will convince people hose bedrock value is goodness and who don’t ask for more tha vague promises that goddness is likely to make them happier. But it doesn’t move me… I know very well where deontological theories lead, and I don’t want to go there.

    And, respectfully,when Nick and Rad Geek start using langauge about being better to die than do evil, I fell like i’ve just left reality. If someone tells Clarrise that her happiness isn’t real because it isn’t virtuous and that she’s do better at the zero-mark of death, she’s not likely to be convinced. As noted above, there are certinaly extreme cases where I’d readily agree with the death-before-committing-evil stanc. But the very language should be a warning bell that one is dealing with moral language which does not and cannot offer a positive happiness incentive for its ethical prescriptions. It doesn’t help that most people I’ve met who have been given to similar statements are quite obviously covering up their deep suffering with loud protestations of their possession of a special and higher kind of spiritual happiness which must be invisible to less ethical mortals. This doesn’t convince me. I’ve known scrily broke people who dance and skip and smile and really display authenic happiness, but they are seldom very interested in dwelling on morality. Happiness is certainly more complicated that how you feel for the next minute, but theories which replace happiness with goodness and call it happiness lose on the happiness scale to even the most vulgar kind of materialism- with the additional demerits of emotional repression and self-deception.

    Addressing prof Long, I have read Aristotle and a fair number of other writers who have exounded egoistic or semi-egoistic theories, but I find Aristotle too arbitrary and metaphysical, Epicurus too apolitical (and he has another version ofthat wierd happiness-is-when-you-stop-knocking-your-head-against the wall stupidity that classical Greek culture seemed to take for granted), Aquinas waytoo Christian to be useful, Spinoza’s great but too abstract for concrete guidance, Stirner wickedly pure but too erratic and antisocial, Nietzsche brilliant but short on kindness and exposition, and Rand articulate and for the most part sensible but too flawed in her logic. Most advocates of egoism I’ve personally known have either veered dangerosuly to a shadow irradicalism whichse only objecction to the extisting culture is that they want to be higher in it (most Randroids)… or to be daring and radical egoists who are pretending not to engage in continual small-scale predation. I loathe the former. I find the rogues to be much more interesting and pleasant company, but it’s not a practical way to run a society. I’m imaging the wonderful people of Crimethinc with responsibility for building hydroelectric or and maintaining city sewer system. VERY bad idea, even if they’s dump LSD into the water supply

    I can understand the difference between thoughtful POH and poorely thought out forms of POH. I can easily graps the ideas that many things are of POH happiness in themselves, and not to a secondary end (such as in love and frienship. I think that when dealing with others we’d be very prudent to make niceness a policy until that defeasable presumption is demonstrably punctured. I can gather that if and when you find yourself dealing with a worthy and creative mind you will and should go to great spiritual and often material effort for their sake.

    So far, I feel like I have a system of ethics which is reasonably coherent, capable of guiding one reliably for life, and which is hardly crudely instrumentalist and materialist- so I hope we can drop the Randian whim-worshipper and subjectivist red herrings.

    My personal hero/ines are people who have made something great out of their lives- some one i would look at admire and think how alive it must be like to be them. They aren’t always happy, but if they’re not the causes are essentially and observably accidental or social, not a fuction of their crafted natures. I admire (to give a quick list at random): Emma Goldman, Nieztsche, Rand, Ellen Willis, Joan Baez, Anne Rice, Walter Kaufmann, Allan Bloom, Barbara Hambly Peter Viereck, Tori Amos, Chris Sciabarra. My standard is Nietzsche’s or Burckhardt’s Rennaisance virtue, or Nietzsche’s picture of ‘the Roman Ceaser with Christ’s soul’ or perhaps his ‘Artistic Socrates’. The ideals usually needs som significant reotouching and broadening, especially when trying to bring masculine Promethean ethoi over to a model consistent with feminism. Nevertheless, this is a real ideal.

    I assert that this provides a serious ethos. You can live by this. You can live deeply by this. I want to emphasise this because Ibelieve many get the impression that I think the good life consists in 24-hour orgies with sex, drugs, and the aforementioned pina coladas (um… maybe I should include sleep in that schedule) And while I’m not ashamed to say outright that a shallow life with lollies is better than a shallow life sans lollies (it’s certainly a fate better than death), I definitely want more. Sure, pleasure’s my specialisation, and others may find it beneath them, but I doubt I could find much meaning is other valuable human pursuits such as accounting or electronics repair. I love thrills, adventure, and new experiences. That’s merely my peculiar temperament, itself aproduct of unusual circumstances, but I’m no less pursuing ideals and achievement that anyone else. More than many, I’d venture to say. As I used to loudly maintained, prostitution is a career and a vocation as well as simply a job. People are welcome to complain to me about hedonistic deviations that really do interfere with pleasure-specialist eudaimonism, but in that case the problem is me, not the theory. Most IT professionals are more geeky that the excellence of their own specialisations require, but they aren’t usually condemned for it.

    I could therefore argue that I do preach and pracrice a eduamonism… at least if the central distinction of eudaimonism is captures within the eight points above. But if yo’all don’t think it counts, then why not? What would constitute a rational end? If you mean choosing values which make the best use of the human condition, then I think we’re on the same page. But if there still is a problem, than i get the feeling that there’s some intrinsicist conception of the ‘naturally good life’ lurking in the backgrounds. but I don’t recognise the legitimacy of intrinsic values. I don’t see any way they *could be justified without refrenece to God, platonic Good, mysticism, teleology, or biological determinism. I couldn’t accept the claims until shown a validation of one of these theories or something like them.

    Until then, I’ll stick to the view that value occured in the meeting place between subjective capacity for rewardng existence and the real world’s potential to be made to make that possible, with a great deal of respect for the degree that reason and imagination may be used to alter the subject’s values and the being-in-itself which confronts it. For the record, i think our capacity to alter our schemas of valuation is very signifacant but not infinitely elastic. The determinists and hard evolutionawy biologists are wrong, but the existentialists, genuine Randians, Reiachians, and some radical feminists hold people up to ridiculous standards which are impossible without an elite upbrining and/or genetic modification. (my suggested solution: spare no social effort to educate everyone up to uni level by age 16; it can be done).

    So what’s the proble?. Part of me just wants to call this morality and go home. I’ve covered most of the bases of what say, an average leftish Rawlsian moralist would require, and in practice I usually only get called out for doing something objectionable by bigots (with whom I couldn’t do anything right), people on the internet (many of whom would start duels over preferences in internet browsers)… and intellectual people, barring liberals who seem to morally aporive. It’s the intellectuals I care about, but I confess that I’m often baffled as to what kinf of thought process one is expected to have in order to qualify for the term ‘morality’. It seems to me as if the very act of defending your way of as the most rewarding way of life you know of isn’t good enough- what you have to have is a kind of independent regard for others which starts with it being about them, not you.

    I don’t have this. I agree with Rand. I cherish friends and lovers deeply but precisiely becasue of what they mean to me. I expect no more than the same from others and in fact enjoy this kind of regard for others. I prefer honest moral neutrality with strangers to caring intrusiveness- you stay out of mind, i’ll stay out of yours, and then we can deal fairly. I don’t want others to condsider my ‘moral personhood; as a potential veto to their self-interest. I’d rather they see me as something they like, love, care about, or profit from… or at the very least as just someone passing on the street of no concern to them, whom they could care less about.

    And yet the entire edifice of what people call ‘morality’- even to some degree in Rand- seems to be about a ‘regard for persons’- other souls- which I find weirdly senseless. I admire particular human beings. I love a small set of them. I find humanity as a whole to be in principle a very nice thing to have around, if too often boring and mediocre. I live in a mental universe where I spend most of the time arguing with the twenty or so people whose character and ideas examplify alternatives in life I’m considering, but it isn’t mainly about them. I just don’t find the goal of ‘trying to be moral’ to be of any practical utility in my life. I’ve nicer to people when I don’t consider the issue.

    I suppose I could just go Randian ad declare myself an egoist very concerned with the issue of ethics in a way contrary to the opinions of others. Perhaps I should, but i don’t want to wear a Randian label, and I hate crusading and usually find it easier just to shrug when people call me evil. There are few things as pointless as a bloody intellectual battle to prove that egoism is a better morality- and history is very clear that most socieites respond to inquiries of this kind with the gift of a Super Big Gulp of hemlock.

    Another reason I prefer amoralism is that the term morality has been poisoned by bearly everyone who frequebtly uses it. I can agree with what people call ‘morality’ when it comes to murder, rape, torture, bigotry and slavery. But those who like the word typically go on to damn fun, sex, bisexuality, fun, atheism, paganism, BDSM, sex, fun, prostitution, drug use, alcohol use, sex, bohemianism, individualism, thinking for yourself, sex, fun, fun, and fun. Basically, the word ‘morality’ feels primarily like a performative statement which usually comes just before the swing of a board with a nail in it. Five years ago i took a different tactic and argued for the virtuousness of prostitution and such, but all it did was make yourself a target. Not a good game. So I’ll keep the names ‘depraved’ and ‘sociopath’ and get on with my life. Fine, I’ve no ethics. So now what are you going to call me now?

    But there is one real problem: I don’t see how my own ethical theories can possibly address some specific kinds of exploitation ad abuse which, qua progressive, I just can’t brush away as a harmless detail. To some degree these are matters of blindness, as Marja said. The philosophy of life lived by Athenian arisocrats inspires me immensely, but it was built on the backs of slaves and most women. Ditto for all the other high cultural periods in which so many wonderful spiritual advances occured (Orlando Patterson and George Orwell both suggested in different ways that this is not an accident). Or I think of my teens, and all the time I spent tagiing along behind my grandmother to the Smithsonian museums. Intellectually, I know that these buildings were financed by extortion and supplied by cultural looting after colonialism and war. Every image, every period, every story which speaks deeply to me is infected with the same problem, including the big ones which break the rules.

    I think of the activites which I consider most ennobling- developing artistic talent, reading the best that has been thought and said, playing out deep and passionate romances… and I notice that they all require a peace and time which has almost always proved to be an elite luxury. Simply put, I fear that the ideally best life (in kind, not degree) is made possible by the sweat of slaves, and that a just society could make the best life impossible. And it’s not just the elites I’m thinking of; bohemians recreate precisely the same game in a way appropriate to more limited resources.

    (Im cutting off here, mainly because the screen is swimming too much. I have to lie down)

  29. Sergio Méndez


    Just another point I think it is important. You feel disgusted with the “word” morality, which you associate with conservatism and christianity or conservative versions of christianity (I think something similar happens with aristotle and some forms of clasical philosophy). But I think it will be a wrong turn to allow conservatives appropiate of such terms, terms that have nothing wrong in themselves. It is not the term over which we must fight: it is the contents. Morality is not about, as conservatives have tried to make us believe, of their ridicoulous and superticious predjuices against fun or sex, nor must be confused with bigotry or the respect for “order”. We must not allow conservatives to keep for themselves something that is not righfully theirs, and that has little to do with their profesed beliefs.

  30. Marja Erwin


    Nah, the term’s unsalvageable. We need another term to avoid confusion. Like, um, moression. ;-)

  31. Nick "Natasha" Manley

    For the record: I don’t think I was in any great rational philosopher state of mind when writing about dying before being immoral ~ considering I agree with Rand that morality is supposed to be about living. I also don’t think we should erect a barrier between the moral-practical or any of that other corrupting duality. This suggests a need to check my premises; so to speak.

    As of now, I am too exhausted to fully contribute something precise about it to the discussion. Suffice it to say that my conception of what is immoral makes the potential for a “die or be moral” situation rather remote. What can I say? I have loose morals in the conservative sense ( :

    Marja, Charles, Roderick, and everyone else: let’s keep this discussion going!

    The ball’s in your court.

  32. Neverfox

    I would find it very helpful is others, especially Rad Geek and Roderick Long, could breifly sketch out the nature of their own broad ethical views in ordinary language.

    Roderick has a wonderful series of lectures that do exactly that. Well worth a listen but, at about 15 hours of content (less if you are only interested in the ethics core), it’s not exactly what one would call brief.

  33. Roderick T. Long


    Thanks for the plug. There are handouts therefrom.

  34. Aster


    On dialectical grounds you are absolutely right. If I was writing philosophically, I would probably use precisely this approach. I did use it in the past when I tried writing for a Randian audience.

    Why I don’t now: because I don’t get anything when I invoke the word ‘morality’. Once you use the world, you give everyone else in the room a conversational precedent to invoke the same degree of seriousness in standards, which leads to more trouble than I can possibly deal with.

    Yes, if we’re going to save the world, we will inescapably have to come to a common conception of morality which promotes all of our flourishing. In the broadest sense, morality is simply (‘simply’?!) about the question as to how we are to spend our brief time in this world. But when most people talk about morality, they mean interpersonal relations, which is to be an significant but relatively small department of ethics proper. And the deeply engrained notions which people have as to how we should relate to one another grate so deeply against my happiness and sometimes survival that I just do not want to encourage morality-talk. And I’m on strike. I don’t want to save the world, which apparently prefers its mindless tribal barnyards to liberal civilisation. Let them have what they want and pay for it. I’d rather accept their designation as evil than fight with such a wretched lot for the concept of good.

    Lockean contractualism, instrumental reason, etc., etc., are every bit as limiting as you say (yes, I’m familiar with the Frankfurt School, and have some appreciation for Habermas). But the functional intersubjectivity involved in substantive reason is a very rare thing and requires a great deal of trust. When you try to open whole socieities to that kind of relation- which is the moral inspiration behind much communitarianism, socialism, and especially Medievalism, what you actually get is a collectivist hole with no spiritual privacy and death by suffocation for anyone who thinks differently. The realistic alternatives are instrumental reason and substantive unreason: a society of grace and charm and rules and customs and gods which can only be maintained by locking down the minds of the young. If you are to liberate the exceptional to be the exceptional you much liberate the unexceptional to be the unexceptional. I’d rather have a society which watches television than one which goes to church. Especially because the latter society will throw rocks at me, and I don’t find the supposed nobility of martyrdom worth serious spiritual consideration.

    Therefore, my personal rule number one in life is to keep dealings instrumental until trust and mutual aid is proven. The sole occasion in which I’ve made exception to this principle has resulted in one of the worst emotional episodes in my life. Back in the early modern period, people like Spinoza, Descartes, and Voltaire made frequent statements about how nice it was to live in relatively tolerant places like Holland where people would just go away and mind their own frickin’ business. Secular Judaism’s internalisation of this lesson has subsequently become the cultural backbone of liberal civilisation in the West. America’s wide implementation of certain implications of this principle will be remembered (as will the horrors of its empire) for millenia.

    Strauss identified modernity as a civilisation founded on low but solid ground, whose architects were unpalatable realists such as Machiavelli and Bacon. I agree with Strauss in this analysis, and go further to disagree with Strauss that this modernity should be preserved against attempts to refound civil society upon any conception of the heights. This project which can only lead to totlitarianism. I deeply believe in cultivation of human excellence, but believe that this must be an affair of individuals and of civil society… and as a feminist I don’t much trust civil society either (or Descartes, or Bacon, etc., etc.). I very definitely defend a substantive concept of reason. Charles’ and Roderick’s ‘objective happiness’ however doesn’t make much sense to me.

    Please, aspire to goodness. Better yet, aspire to greatness, which is much more interesting. But keep it out of politics- not just out of the legislatures but out of all discourse purposely intended to effect the unavoidably shared elements of social life. Private galleries should be carefully ornamented; public buildings sparsely and trnasparently functional. Ideal human relations almost never coincide with those civil institutions which promote social peace- you can have both, but try to do both at the same time and the same respect and the result is a mess. I’m a liberal, and like Toqueville I think you pay a price for liberal democracy, and that price is the often uninspiring reality of the commercial republic. Pursue the true, the good, and the beautiful. But place them under a restraining order to remain fifteen light years’ distance from political philosophy. The fountainheads of genius, if made a matter of public conversation, produce the terrors of fascism.

    Now if you wish to speak of human virtue, classical virtue, moraline-free virtue, in private, and free from power, and on your own time, then I respect you greatly for doing so. Please, all power to you. I would like nothing so much as to see more stature in this world- call it ‘moral’ stature, if you like. And that includes statures which I don’t find attractive and don’t wish myself to emulate. Charles and Marja are both, by every evidence, supremely moral persons. I don’t want to live that way, but I admire and respect and depth of their lives, the degree to which they’ve dedicated themselves to their projects. I merely hope that the intensity which their examined lives bring them is matched in joy.

    I want also to live deeply, to live thoughtfully, but not the same way, the way that lets you find old wooden cups and ride unicorns. Perhaps the ultimate reason I’d call it amoralism is this: for Roderick, Charles and Marja the concept of ‘morality’ seems to do an immense amount of their decision-making work. In my life, it’s an idea I rarely consult, or which I try not to consult. When I find myself worrying about whether an action is ‘moral’ qua moral I immediately step back and start checking my premises. Usually the answer I come back with, without the use of moral ideas, ends up agreeing with what my liberal friends would call morality- but not because of morality.

    In fact, virtually the only occasions where I do find myself forced to rhetorically lean on moral concepts in when dealing with the bigotry and oppression which liberals focus most of their energy on. The primary reason I’ll go beyond my own preferences to support other things liberals morally want is precisely because they do more than I can rightfully ask of them my by own values in cases crucial to my own flourishinh. Morality as a treaty, if you will, with a mutually beneficial compromise. I’ll go a fair way with what others say they want from me if they’ll get my back against patriarchs and fascists. So if by ethics you mean social contract ethics- then sure, I’ll sign, as long as the rules aren’t applied prejudicially. But I see this as a matter of politics or law, a ‘civic ethic’, which doesn’t qualify as virtue in any very important sense of the term. Virtue to me is about ideals, and the only public ideal I want to defend is the perfection of a lack of public ideals. I think that’s called ‘individualist anarchism’.

    I get that other people see things differently, which is fine. My slant of reasoning may have a lot to do with my own strict Anglo-Catholic upbringing and the fact that the specific evils I find most threatening are overwhlemingly of Christian origin. I also suspect things may look very differently to those more comfortably rooted in a web of communal relationships. I never really understood before coming to New Zealand what it was like to have a home, or what people loved when they talked about family. I’m starting to now, and makes me much more able to love this world. I find myself caring more and more about ‘voice’ and less and less about ‘exit’. It’s a nice thing to start to feel a little civilised.

    But I can never forget or forget to reserve my right of exit- for no culture, despite its superficial tolerance, can ever be trusted to deal justly with those who won’t partake in its cultic communions. And no one who thinks can ever authentically do this, until perhaps the day comes when nations and religions exist no longer. Perhaps the difference between myself and the gallant revolutionaries I often find as friends is that I’m not holding my breath waiting for that day. Until the revolution comes, I wish to live in this unjust world. One can aspire and worship without seeking a barricade.


    I’ll take a look at the lectures once I’m back in New Zealand. It’s great fun to watch how you can stretch a single hour on internet access into five by jumping on- and- off line, but it doesn’t work with long videos.

    I look forward to figuring out how you manage to combine what works out as a perfect Randian egoism with a peculiar fondness for the word ‘duty’. I know that there are pre-Christian ways of framing the concept which aren’t so bad, but I never loved the Pagan virile gravitas trip either, nor would I imagine do you.


    I reread my earlier exposition on (a)morality… and, um, I didn’t realise I was under that much morphine. The trouble is that I can write without much use of my eyes, but reading and thus proofreading is painfully disorienting with this Darth Vader thing over my nose. ;) I humbly submit to a razzie for worst self-editing ever. Apologies.

  35. Roderick T. Long


    Well, how do you feel about concepts like “courageous,” “generous,” “wise,” “just,” “kind,” “cruel,” “insensitive,” “cowardly,” “feckless,” or even “asshole”?

    Because I’m a virtue-ethicist, so for me all those virtue-terms and vice-terms are moral concepts.

  36. Sergio Méndez


    Well, it is hard to me to respond to your latest post, since it is so long and I don´t know where to start. But I think there is an idea that you repeat over an over: separate morality from the sphere of politics, they are (or must be) differenciated realms. If you do not, you may fall under totalitarism, under a society “anybody who thinks differently will be suffocated”.

    I think the historicall evidence suggest the contrary. The great totalisms of the world were completly amoral. In their ideologies the only things that mattered were what were considered “political”: power in the case of fascism, or simply the welfare or the teleological development of some conception of history (as it happened with the vulgar marxism spoused in comunist regimens).

    It can be the case, anyways, that a conception of morality can be imposed over the rest of the population and turn to be autocratic. But that is the whole point we are discussing here: the contents of that morality, that like or not, are coming to the political discusion always (even as a denial of morality as modernity pretends). And I am not willing to leave that discusion to conservatives, comunitarists, medievalists as you call them, nor statists of any sort. Freedom is primordial in a political speech, but is not sufficient (or will you like a society where patriarchy and traditional roles for women and men are considered acceptable? Or you think the state is the only enforcer of such evils?).

  37. Roderick T. Long

    Likewise, one of my favourite passages from Rand is this one:

    “Rights” are a moral concept — the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others — the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context-the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.

    Every political system is based on some code of ethics. The dominant ethics of mankind’s history were variants of the altruist-collectivist doctrine which subordinated the individual to some higher authority, either mystical or social. Consequently, most political systems were variants of the same statist tyranny, differing only in degree, not in basic principle, limited only by the accidents of tradition, of chaos, of bloody strife and periodic collapse. Under all such systems, morality was a code applicable to the individual, but not to society. Society was placed outside the moral law, as its embodiment or source or exclusive interpreter — and the inculcation of self-sacrificial devotion to social duty was regarded as the main purpose of ethics in man’s earthly existence.

    Since there is no such entity as “society,” since society is only a number of individual men, this meant, in practice, that the rulers of society were exempt from moral law; subject only to traditional rituals, they held total power and exacted blind obedience — on the implicit principle of: “The good is that which is good for society (or for the tribe, the race, the nation), and the ruler’s edicts are its voice on earth.”

  38. Roderick T. Long

    Of course if you really take seriously the idea that government should be subject to the same moral laws as everyone else, you have to end up — contra Rand — with anarchy. (How, for example, could there be such a crime as “failing to obey the orders of a police officer” if police officers and the rest of us were covered by the same moral law?)

  39. Gabriel

    It’s quite telling that, as in that article by Knapp you linked to, governments don’t even bother charging people with actual crimes often; they’ll just charge you with “disobeying an officer”, “resisting arrest”, “disorderly conduct”, etc, and not even bother with whatever the original crime was. The implicit message is, of course, that disobeying agents of the state is the highest crime you can commit.

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