Tyranny

Plato diagnosed tyranny as first and foremost an affliction of the soul. Socrates in Plato’s Republic characterizes the tyrannical soul by a malformed desire that strongly resists any kind of balanced consideration of other factors. This kind of desire wants its way immediately and unconditionally.

The tyrannical soul wants a kind of unquestioning recognition from others, without reciprocally recognizing them. This kind of attitude represents the opposite end of the spectrum from what Aristotle called magnanimity or great-souledness; rather, it is characteristic of the attitude of Mastery denounced by Hegel. Unfortunately, modern egoism, with its emphasis on a narrow kind of self, tends to devolve in this direction. (See also Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

While a tyrannical soul may be an Aristotelian cause of particular unjust acts, this does not mean that injustice as a whole is reducible to matters of individual character. Injustice is not just caused by the bad acts of individuals, but also often involves institutions and social structure, which have their persistence in part from a kind of materiality of their own.

Ego

Literally since childhood, I’ve been concerned about ethical issues involving ego or egoism in a plain ordinary dictionary sense. This involves a number of related aspects. At the grossest level, there is selfishness and arrogance. Beyond that, there are many kinds and degrees of self-centeredness. At the subtle end of the spectrum, there are various kinds of self-involvement that impair our attention to the concerns of others. What these all have in common is that with varying degrees of seriousness, they result in failures of reciprocity in social relationships, failures to apply the golden rule. As a young person, this led me to investigate various spiritual teachings about ego and self and what to do with them. This still stands as a backdrop to my philosophical interest in questions related to subjectivity, and in related questions of historical interpretation.

Philosophically, ego in the ordinary sense is not at all the same thing as a Subject, but the two are commonly confounded. Both are problematic, and require careful handling. Modern common-sense views of such things most often implicitly reflect a very specific historical “mentalist” philosophical view shared by Descartes and Locke, which tends to simply identify the two. In my view, this identification of ego-self-subject-mind as one simple thing is utterly wrong, and makes it impossible to adequately address the serious issues with each separate concept.

Historically, the rise of Cartesian-Lockean mentalism was closely tied to the rise of possessive individualism, of which Locke, along with Hobbes, was one of the main theorists (see Rights). This gave egoism in the ordinary sense a new kind of respectability that it did not have in premodern society. On this theory, people could claim ethical justification for egoistic behavior, and claim additional support from theories like Adam Smith’s invisible hand. This created a further slippery slope, leading to all manner of extensions and abuses of these principles that Locke or Smith would not have condoned. (See also Desire of the Master; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

In sound ethics, reciprocity comes before self. This does not imply any extreme self-denial, just appropriate consideration of others, who should give the same consideration to us. (See also The Ambiguity of “Self”; Individuation; What Is “I”?)