Forgiving Yourself of Your Self Trespasses

All morality is social; no man can commit wrong against himself.

This was the Facebook post that received the most comments in my five years on the website. It warrants elaboration, justification, and refinement.

To begin with the easiest objection, I can hear the complaint that I have used the masculine noun “man.” I prefer this term for its grammatical ease of use and romantic flavor. Nevertheless to placate the feminist objection it shall be replaced with a second-person perspective. I am after all communicating with someone else: you!

Now when I say “all morality is social,” this insufficiently communicates my assertion. I mean that all morality is of social significance: without more than one person there can be no morality. The overwhelming majority of all moral actions imply the existence of someone or something else: theft (of what from whom?), lying (to whom?), torture (of humans and animals) is wrong.

I must also address the difference between harm and wrong. It’s simple to think there are innumerable ways in which I can harm myself physically and psychologically, therefore this assertion is inaccurate. But whereas all wrongs imply a harm, it is not the case that all harms are wrongs. Take the issue of self defense. Let’s say someone threatens you with a weapon and you decide to fight back and hurt the individual by wielding your own weapon. Harm occurs–but who would contend defending oneself in this instance was wrong? Therefore, I rephrase my initial assertion:

All morality is of social significance, therefore you cannot wrong yourself.

Ayn Rand is well known for her ethics of “objectivism.” It might appear that objectivism is an ethics that centers on self (one of her books is, after all, entitled The Virtue of Selfishness). Yet it may be seen that hers is as much an ethics that praises the self as much as it is an ethics that rejects altruism as a primary ethical imperative. She wanted to show that altruism (sacrificing oneself for others) if taken as the greatest good can only lead to self-destruction and is therefore to be abhorred. Notice, however, that again we see the implication of others as a necessary component of morality.

So what significance does all this give us? It is crucial to understand this as a call to the realization that each individual creates their own morality. We are the arbiters of right and wrong. As an arbiter of right and wrong, your actions themselves, insofar as they affect others, have significance for your own moral code. But as the arbiter yourself, you cannot create moral code against yourself, for this is a self cancelling futility, a mere reciprocation. Furthermore, given that each individual is holds no obligations to others (a topic of further discussion), the individual is free to do as they please with their bodies so long as no interference with another person is involved. You are an end in yourself whose behavior can only be called moral insofar as it involves someone else.

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Slapping oneself, for example, is not immoral–it may be foolish; it may produce harm, but insofar as you slap yourself, it’s like your left fist smashing your right fist. Which fist do we condemn? Or else do we condemn ourselves, punish ourselves for actions we did to ourselves? It may even be seen that you on some level accept the pain (insofar as you are at the same time the recipient of your harm) as much as you are the agent imposing that pain.

All action that occurs solely within the circuit of your own self breaches no moral code. Paul said in 1 Cor. 10:23, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” Keeping in mind you must accept the consequences of your actions, you are free to do what you want, with, and for yourself–and free from blame from anyone for so doing.