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Self Help: Egotists vs. Egoists

Self Help: Egotists vs. Egoists

9 mins
June 18, 2010

In his 1997 "State of the Culture" interview with Navigator, The Atlas Society's  executive director, David Kelley, was asked: "If you had to pick the biggest triumph of the Enlightenment culture during the last twenty-five years, what would it be?" His somewhat surprising answer:

I would say that, over the last twenty-five years, the biggest triumph of the Enlightenment view is that people have grasped the concept of their own happiness as a real goal in life. You can see this in the emergence of the self-help industry. Here is a huge industry that hardly existed a generation ago. People today go to seminars, and take classes, and buy books, for no purpose except to be happier in their personal lives. Of course, a lot of it is garbage. There's a lot of self-indulgence, irrationality, and subjectivism involved. But the very fact that the self-help movement exists is a triumph for the individualist, Enlightenment outlook. ("The State of the Culture, 1997," Navigator, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 11)

A lot of the self-help movement is indeed garbage, but a substantial segment of the movement is genuinely concerned to help people improve their personal efficacy and sense of self-worth, and that segment is the subject of this column: "Self-help: Egotists and Egoists."

As the title suggests, individualists within the self-help movement suffer from the same split that sunders individualists in moral philosophy. For one group, individualism means self-assertion and authenticity: "I Did It May Way" and "I Gotta Be Me." For the other group, individualism means achievement and idealism: "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and "Dream the Impossible Dream." For the lineaments of the more severe split in philosophy, see my article "Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand's Moral Triad." (Navigator, Vol. 2, No. 12, September 1999.)

Of course, this split is not a neat one. In reality, there is a spectrum, with self-help therapists tending to align themselves more to one side or the other but often mixing in advice from the alternative perspective. After all, no sane therapist is going to recommend the Underground Man as a good model of expressive authenticity, and no sane therapist is going to encourage a patient to pursue a dream that is literally impossible.

That said, let us look at three works that are more or less egoistic in their orientation.


(Pulling Your Own Strings. By Wayne W. Dyer. New York: Harper Paperback, 1978. 293 pp. $6.50.)

Objectivists will suspect that Dyer has had at least a passing acquaintance with their philosophy, perhaps through the works of Nathaniel Branden. For when Dyer comes to formulate what he means by "operating from strength," he says, "I mean leading your life from the twin positions of worth and effectiveness." (31) In other words, he chooses precisely the two terms that Branden uses to describe the fundamental elements of self-esteem. But Dyer does not have to much to say about "worth" in this book. His focus is on effectiveness. And he hammers home the need for effectiveness by saying, again and again: Don't let yourself become a victim of others' attempts to manipulate you.

To be sure, Dyer does begin with a few words about how wonderful we are: "Your body may reveal capabilities that verge on the 'superhuman.'" (12) "There is a genius residing in you, and you can expect to let its brilliance surface." (14) "You have just as much of an inherent capacity for emotional genius as you do for physical and mental excellence." (15) I am not sure what "emotional genius" means, but it sounds good. "Think rich if money is what you want for yourself. Begin to picture yourself as articulate, creative, or as anything else you want to be." (16) To my mind, Dyer's praise of positive thinking creeps dangerously from the undoubted power of projecting one's goals to "wishing makes it so."

Be that as it may, Dyer does not linger in this book on what positive thinking can accomplish. His goal is to make sure that you get what you want, by making sure that you act as you want.

Unfortunately, his depiction of social reality strikes me as unnecessarily malevolent, and consequently his recommendations as less than optimal for one's well-being. In particular, he does not seem to envision society as a network of persons, each of whom is striving to enter into mutually beneficial trades with others. Rather, his society seems to comprise a mass of would-be individuals most of whom are trying to exploit ("victimize") others. His solutions, then, typically focus on persuading the reader to reject attempted exploitations and achieve his own goals.

Now, certainly, when people try to persuade us to accept bad trades, we should reject them. But surely the optimal solution is to try to renegotiate the trade so that everybody gains. That, however, is not Dyer's way. He says that at one of his lecture he had the 800 attendees list the five most common situations in which they felt victimized. Out of the 4,000 examples, 83 percent related to the family. That is understandable, because we are not accustomed to thinking of intra-family exchanges as trades and family members are therefore more likely to talk us into bad deals. So we should strive to make sure we get good deals.

Dyer takes a different approach. He recommends "teaching" one's family, through behavior, that one is not going to be a victim—which means: not doing what they want. "Just don't go one time to that deadly tea party at Aunt Miriam's, and see what happens." (131) You can do that, of course, but the likely response is that those one disappoints will be disobliging the next time you want something. And so on, back and forth. Would it not be better to trade off disagreeable tasks, either by agreeing to fulfill them when requested or by excusing each other from fulfilling them? Then, at least, your "price" would let your family understand just how awful you perceive Aunt Miriam's tea parties to be.

Lastly, it must be noted, Dyer's egoism descends into the lawlessness of Nietzscheanism when he fails the old, old test of reconciling egoism with honesty. And here his lack of philosophical sophistication is also exposed, for in all seriousness he bases his argument on the justice of lying to murderous Nazis. He then reasons:

So you are not against lying in all circumstances, but you probably define very narrowly the circumstances in which you believe it to be ethical. So what you really need to do is give more thought to defining your grounds for lying." (111)

To seal his point, Dyer tells the story of an older woman who put aside this "silly taboo" and lied about her age to get a job. Apparently, her employer did not have the right to pull his own strings when deciding on qualifications for employment.


(Looking Out for Number One. By Robert J. Ringer. Los Angeles, Calif.: Los Angeles Book Corp., 1978. 293 pp.  Now out of print, Looking Out for Number One is available from on-line bookservices, as a paperback , for under $10.00.)

In his "Acknowledgments," Ringer cites two people as having contributed above all others to "the evolution of my philosophy": Ayn Rand and Harry Browne. And throughout this work, the Objectivist influence is evident in practically every line of advice. Indeed, if one sat down to write a self-help book with nothing to go on but The Virtue of Selfishness, Looking Out for Number One is what one might get. To say that is to explain this work's successes and most of its failings.

Ringer's chief success is putting achievement, rather than the avoidance of victimization, at the center of things. "Looking out for Number One," he says, "is the conscious, rational effort to spend as much time as possible doing those things which bring you the greatest amount of pleasure and less time on those which cause pain." (1) In its essence, then, the activity of looking out for Number One precedes even the awareness of others, reminding one of Rand's statement that it is on a desert island man would need morality most.

Of course, Ringer does get around to the problem of vicitimization, as any egoistical advice-giver should. He writes: "You must overcome the fear of being condemned for refusing to do what others want you to do. Don't accept a responsibility just because someone thinks you should." An important rule to remember is: "Learn to say no politely and pleasantly, but immediately and firmly."

Still, Ringer's book has numerous drawbacks, and some of them could have been avoided just by a more careful reading of The Virtue of Selfishness. Here is a major one. Ringer wishes to convince his audience that "looking out for number one" is morally acceptable. In this culture, that is a real problem for an egoistic, mass-market work on self-help, and one can understand why Ringer sought a quick and powerful way to make his point. But his answer rests on philosophical error.

He begins by citing a dictionary to the effect that "selfishness" means "regarding one's own interest or advantage chiefly or solely." Then he writes:

Selfishness is not the issue. You will always act selfishly, no matter how vehemently you resist or protest to the contrary, because such action is automatic. You have no choice in the matter. What you can choose is whether you will be rationally selfish or irrationally selfish. . . . If you're rationally selfish, then you chiefly regard your own interests, but not solely. Simple reasoning tells you that you must regard the interests of others (though not all others) in order to obtain your objectives.

Ringer's first step, in other words, is to endorse "psychological egoism," the view that men always act for what they believe to be their own best interest. Ringer then declares that one's selfish behavior can be rational or irrational. And he asserts that the former means taking into account the interests of others (when pursuing one's own interests), while the latter means not taking into account the interests of others. Ringer could have avoided the trap of psychological egoism if he had read Nathaniel Branden's essay "Isn't Everyone Selfish? (The Virtue of Selfishness), wherein Branden distinguished between the fact that all actions are motivated and the fact that only some are motivated by one's self-interest.

Ringer's second distinction is a slippery one. He says that a person regards his own interests chiefly, but not solely, if he serves others' interests as a means to serving his own. A trade would be an obvious example. One must "serve" the interests of others in order for a trade to go through. But the all-important question is whether, in deciding to make the trade, my only concern is the benefit to me or whether the benefits to others are also put on the scale. If the former is the case, then I am serving solely my own interests, even though I am "serving" others as a means to attaining those interests.

Lastly, Ringer's work of applied philosophy is limited by being a work of applied philosophy. The insights it offers are set forth with no empirical grounding apart from a few anecdotes. They do not seem to have grown out of, nor been tested in, a therapeutic practice, and the author (so far as a reader can tell) lacks what such a practice could bring: a wide range of case studies and an appreciation for individual situations and psychologies.


(Taking Responsibility: Self-Reliance and the Accountable Life. By Nathaniel Branden. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. 255 pp. $22.00.)

Nathaniel Branden's "self-help" books are unquestionably the top of the genre. He brings to their composition an Objectivist perspective, an ability to grasp and to make relevant philosophical distinctions, and an unmatched breadth of experience. Those experiences range from his years as Ayn Rand's chief associate to his decades in private practice as a psychotherapist, and from his successful founding of the self-esteem movement in psychology to on-going efforts aimed at discovering or hearing new perspectives on the human mind and the human person.

All of this becomes evident when one comes to compare a work like Taking Responsibility with Looking Out for Number One or Pulling Your Own Strings. The former book differs from the latter two as a master to two apprentices. While reading Taking Responsibility, one not only finds it unimaginable that an error like psychological egoism could intrude, one finds an expert handling of such finer philosophical issues as the choice to think and to focus one's mind, the varieties of psychological determinism, and social metaphysics.

The bulk of Branden's work comprises an examination of ten areas of life that "I am responsible for." These are: (1) the level of consciousness I bring to my activities; (2) my choices, decisions, and actions; (3) the fulfillment of my desires; (4) the beliefs I hold and the values I live by; (5) how I manage my time; (6) my choice of companions; (7) how I deal with people; (8) what I do about my feelings and emotions; (9) my happiness; and, (10) my life and well-being. The first is the all-encompassing means and the last is the all-encompassing end. But compare the level of philosophical context which Branden bring to the first with the gimmicky injunction to "pull your own strings." And compare the level of philosophical context which Branden bring to the last with the gimmicky injunction to "look out for number one."

Compare, too, the way in which all three authors deal with the influence of one's upbringing. Ringer, in keeping with his apparent lack of one-on-one counseling, does not mention the influence of upbringing. "Facts alone should influence your actions," he writes. "This can best be accomplished when intellect, rather than emotion, is in control."

Dyer at least understands the problem, and here is how he wants a client to put his past in perspective:

The simple truth about your parents is: They did what they knew how to do. Period. If your father was an alcoholic or he abandoned you as an infant, if your mother was overprotective or uncaring, then that is what they knew how to do at the time. Whatever unfortunate things might have happened in your youth, you have very likely made them much more traumatic than they were at the time.

Taking Responsibility devotes an entire chapter to the process of examining childhood history. Branden acknowledges that, when he began practicing psychotherapy, his approach was on the Ringer model. "I understood psychological problems primarily in terms of mistaken or irrational beliefs—I called them "premises"—that were driving the client down a self-destructive path." Later, he came to see that "if I was to be effective, I would often (not always) need to spend more time exploring the life circumstances in which a self and its strategies originally developed." At the same time, Branden—fully as much as Dyer—insists that the adult client take responsibility for living today. But, he writes:

If I am not an advocate of blaming, neither am I an advocate of forgiveness as a necessary prerequisite of well-being. . . . Does forgiveness mean that the client has to come to believe that, at the time, the parents were doing the best they could, so there are no valid grounds to fault them? But while this is sometimes true, it is not always or necessarily true.

This contrast in the relative sophistication with which the three authors analyze this issue could be multiplied many times, and each time to the distinct advantage of Nathaniel Branden. He is simply in a different league.

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