I’ve been listening to Max Stirner’s book The Ego and His Own on audio. If I had to read it for myself, I would have stopped a long time ago. As it is, I listen to it while I’m getting my morning walk, and stop listening to it once he has gotten on my nerves too badly. I’ve made it through around two thirds of it. He keeps repeating the same idea over and over and over. I get that he is trying to bring out some nuance each time, but, to me, it all seems logically implied once you understand his idea.
His deal is that he thinks that each of us is a unique ego, but that our unique ego is co-opted when it becomes governed by fixed ideas. If you let yourself be governed by fixed ideas, you are controlled by something that isn’t real, a spirit, a spook. His least favorite fixed ideas are the belief in God and the belief in humanity/law. God is not real, it is just an idea that people have latched on to. Humanity is the idea that we as individuals have to do what is right for the sake of the collective. He sees the state, using law, gaining and administering it’s power based on the idea of humanity. He proposed that once you latch on to such a fixed idea you act in opposition to your interests because you are serving the fixed idea, not yourself.
His ideas on rights are really interesting, though.
When the Revolution stamped equality as a “right,” it took flight into the religious domain, into the region of the sacred, of the ideal. Hence, since then, the fight for the “sacred, inalienable rights of man.” Against the “eternal rights of man” the “well-earned rights of the established order” are quite naturally, and with equal right, brought to bear: right against right, where of course one is decried by the other as “wrong.” This has been the contest of rights* since the Revolution.
You want to be “in the right” as against the rest. That you cannot; as against them you remain forever “in the wrong”; for they surely would not be your opponents if they were not in “their right” too; they will always make you out “in the wrong.” But, as against the right of the rest, yours is a higher, greater, more powerful right, is it not? No such thing! Your right is not more powerful if you are not more powerful.
That is a good observation, that opposing ideals claim different things are human rights.
Later he says:
If you let yourself be made out in the right by another, you must no less let yourself be made out in the wrong by him; if justification and reward come to you from him, expect also his arraignment and punishment. Alongside right goes wrong, alongside legality crime. What are you? — You are a — criminal!
Basically, if we are going to say that if we look to another to grant us rights, then we are also saying that the that authority can tell us when we are wrong as well. He means this about God and religion, too, not just the state.
Essentially, he thinks rights are bunk, a fixed idea. There are no rights, there is only might.
I do not demand any right, therefore I need not recognize any either. What I can get by force I get by force, and what I do not get by force I have no right to, nor do I give myself airs, or consolation, with my imprescriptible right.
While Stirner has a point that we have various ideologies battling for who gets to say what is right, what is it he is offering us here instead? No mutual recognition of rights, and the go ahead to use force to get that which we want to satisfy ourselves. He recognizes no right or wrong, there is only what the ego wants.
This leads to absurdity. If each one of us acts an ego, unrestricted by thoughts of right and wrong, then are we then going to all be out murdering each other to gain one another’s possessions? No, that is absurd.
His disparaging of fixed ideas is interesting. However, I assert that there are good fixed ideas that help us all thrive, and there are bad fixed ideas that lead to the dissolution of civilization. Ideas of property and justice are crucial to human society thriving. Man, being a social creature, needs society so he personally can prosper fully.
I want to go back to the idea about letting yourself be dictated to about right and wrong lets the one making the law call you a criminal That we codify right and wrong and have laws against it, thus bringing in a third party will very well make you a criminal if you transgress the law. I think the point is that if we were all true egoists, each of us would recognize no authority but our own will, then concepts of crime would be meaningless because it is bringing in the third party as an authority to make punishment that makes one out as a criminal.
Right and wrong are still going to exist in the absence of state and religion. And you know why? Because you are going to think it is wrong if I try to take what you worked to gain, because you are going to think it is wrong for me to try to kill you to gain your stuff. You aren’t going to put up with it if at all possible to resist, and you will defend that which you worked to gain, to protect your person. That means that I, the other ego, have to protect my life, my person by not taking your stuff and that I have to be prepared to lose my life or face injury if I still persist. I may have no qualms about taking your stuff, or no qualms about murder, but I do have qualms about losing my own life or being maimed. Therefore, I act to protect my life by recognizing that you will defend your life, your property. I recognize that it is your property because I recognize that you aren’t going to just hand it over to me unless I use more force than you are capable of resisting.
For a thought experiment, let us suppose that that we have all become egoists, that there is no state, no religion, that each one of us at any moment decides what is best for himself. We still have to get along in order for each of us egoists to continue to exist and exist in a manner where we are able to thrive. We could not thrive in the uncertainty of not knowing if a fellow egoist was going to murder us and take our stuff at any given moment. Customs would naturally arise and embed themselves in us as fixed ideas because we need one another. As such, there would be social pressures to conform to custom. One could choose to not conform, but they risk being excluded from society, and all the advantages that brings, by nonconformity. You, the egoist, have to pick your poison. Advantage or nonconformity. If you choose advantage, then you have settled on the fixed idea that advantage is better then nonconformity. Sure, you can at any point decide that nonconformity beats advantage, but I don’t think you will. I think you are set on that fixed idea that you like advantage more than you like doing whatever the heck you want.