Why Maslow Was Wrong

If the Theory of Everything towards which the physicists are always striving means a unified and elegant account of all the forces constituting and acting upon matter, then any grand unified theory of man must provide a similarly elegant account of what drives human behaviour. The thing has been tried before, to less than universal satisfaction, but that is no reason not to make the attempt again.

The Method actor famously asks, “What’s my motivation?” Before we can answer this question for human beings, we must first ask it for the other animals, since our basic drives are the same as theirs. All creatures strive to survive, and this involves obviously nutrition and temperature management, plus escaping predators by fight or flight. Then comes reproduction, which has nothing to do with individual survival, indeed is usually inimical to it. But since what we think of as the animal is actually nothing but a guidance system for the gonads, this hardly matters; the animal is merely the platform on which the reproductive program is running at this very moment. Next, since most animals are social, maintenance of position in the hierarchy is essential for survival, reproduction or both. This, then, is the animal agenda, which we may summarise as the Three Fs: feeding, fighting and fucking.

What, then, does humanity bring to this table? Primarily, the ability to deceive others and oneself. The other animals are not very good at lying, and as far as we know none of them can base their lives on a systematically falsified perception of reality. This is probably related to self-awareness, which is generally held not to be possessed by the other animals. For without true, recursive, self-awareness, status must inevitably remain a purely external expression of one’s objective position in the group and of one’s objective value on the sexual market, in both cases as measured in actual outcomes. An animal that is always defeated in love and war behaves in a manner we would call “depressive” in a human; it will cease grooming, avoid others of its kind, and even lay itself down to die. As far as we can see, however, no other animal can say to himself, “So all the males can whup my ass and none of the females will look twice at me. Big deal, deep down I just know myself to be worth more than all of them together!” To conceptualise such a counterfactual or purely metaphysical superiority, in spectacular defiance of the real world of actions and consequences, you need to be a human being.

The human, then, has this special ability, denied to the other animals, to invent a high value for himself in his own mind, a value that is quite independent of how he is seen and treated by his fellows, and quite independent of his accomplishments and deserts, if any. Moreover, this delusional self-admiration appears to be one of the basic human desiderata. Abraham Maslow was, therefore, entirely mistaken; above food, warmth, safety and sex on the pyramid of human needs lies not “self-realisation”, whatever that is supposed to mean, but undeserved self-esteem.

The roads to undeserved self-esteem are many. All of them involve the more or less conscious proposition: “Being a member of (Insert Category Here), and/or having performed (Insert Pointless Ritual Action Here), gives me official permission to admire myself beyond all reason – and concomitantly to look down on others.” The two insert-here options immediately suggest respectively tribalism and religion, whose spin-offs and disguises are more multifarious than people tend to think, but they also appear in combination.

The most basic form of tribalism is probably the pride of family: “I am superior because I am a (Insert Category Here).” The uncomfortable knowledge that this is a tautology – since the category is only considered superior in the first place because it includes Me – drives us to invent specious ancillary reasons. We may therefore give ourselves airs because we come from a “very old family” (as if all families are not of equal antiquity, back to Mitochondrial Eve) and forbid our children to play with such urchins as are not descended in the male line from some armoured thug “who came over with the Conqueror” (or, for Americans, from some wingnut who came over on the Mayflower). Similarly, we may be forever boasting that we went to a particular school, however little we learnt there. We may think ourselves better than the genteel middle classes because we say “sofa” instead of “settee”, even if we never say anything worth listening to while seated on one. It is worth noting that you do not have to be an actual aristocrat to play this game; for it is well known that servants and lackeys faithfully reproduce their masters’ hierarchies among themselves, congratulating themselves and despising their inferiors accordingly. The noble household being the historical predecessor of the company, this gives us all corporate-based self-esteem as well. Ah, the pride in being a slave to a better class of master!

Manners are where (Insert Category Here) is reinforced by (Insert Pointless Ritual Action Here); whereas true courtesy is about consideration for others and making them feel comfortable, etiquette can equally well be about the imposition of inane or even insane rules, like eating one’s peas only with the back of the fork, in order to pat oneself on the back and look down on those who scoop them up. Speaking of legumes, the story of the Princess and the Pea suggests that the self-satisfaction authorised by neurasthenic levels of refinement is considered more valuable than a good night’s sleep.

The snobbery of the upper and middle classes is, of course, mirrored and matched by the equal and opposite class snobbery, or populism, whereby we think unreasonably well of ourselves for not being “pretentious”, even if we are actually pretending very hard to have completely avoided anything resembling education. At least the working-class pride of yore made sense in terms of who actually created the value on which others lived; but alas, the Communist animus against economic exploitation and parasitism has morphed into the Fox News animus against the scientist, the scholar, or even the moderately literate individual. In our time, therefore, one of the most prominent routes to undeserved self-esteem is therefore the worship of our own ignorance. This is far more congenial than the worship of our own knowledge, as ignorance is so much easier to acquire. Moreover, the advantage of the populist concept of “common sense” is that it is practically impossible to prove the elitist suggestion that we don’t actually have any; for we can simply assign this label of “common sense” to whatever level of prejudice, ignorance and stupidity we really do possess. O sancta simplicitas!

It is an error to analyse the politics of developed economies in terms of institutions or sector interests, even class interests. The modern social compact is not about economic but about emotional interests. What the players want is the opportunity for rent-seeking and extraction of loot; they purchase the people’s blessing for this with the coin of what Erik Berne used to call “permissions”: they grant the people what they most want, which is permission to admire themselves and to hate those unlike themselves.

By analogy with the family, we may also grant ourselves undeserved self-esteem because we are members, however unproductive, of the nation. If mere sharing of genes or formal adoption is not enough, we can congratulate ourselves on the grounds that our nation has defeated other nations in war, in battles at which we were not actually present, which is known as Glory; or that it has produced great books that we have not actually read, which is known as Culture. If different individuals express their nationalism with varying degrees of malignancy, this may be because their needs for narcissistic supply differ. We may even venture to suggest that, the more a person has to feel proud of, in terms of his own personal accomplishments, the less he will need to obtain his self-esteem from membership of the (Insert Category Here). Dr. Johnson was accordingly correct in associating patriotism with scoundrels. We must beware the person who has a need to magnify his own tribe in order vicariously to magnify his own deserts, which somewhere deep down he knows are otherwise worthless; for such desperate grandiosity may result in terrorism or genocide.

If you cannot obtain enough undeserved self-esteem from membership of your national group, for example because it is too large and abstract, then more intimate forms of tribalism are available. That sport is a sublimation of tribal warfare is no new observation. The man whose team has just won the game can enjoy a sensation of elevated self-worth that makes no kind of sense but that cannot be taken away from him by reason; and, just as with the national variety, the fewer grounds you have for self-esteem in the first place, the more likely that your quest for undeserved self-esteem will take violent forms. At the opposite extreme, followers of the Chicago Cubs may, if they so desire, borrow the old British trick and congratulate themselves on their occupancy of the moral high ground; “I am superior, because for me it’s not about the winning”.

Closely related to football-supporter tribalism are the subcultures of modern musical genres with their appurtenant sartorial codes. Never in the field of human socialising have so many looked down their noses at – well, so many others. Balkanisation of lifestyle has nowadays reached such a pitch that it seems almost impossible that any two young clubbers should regard one another as fully human, separated as they are by the vast gulfs of liking one track on a disk more than another, or shopping at adjacent clothing stores in the same mall. As opposed to national tribalism, where you can flatter yourself that Shakespeare, Napoleon or Goethe once walked the same streets as yourself, the musical and fashion tribes would be hard put to give us an actual reason, however specious, for their superiority; they are cool because they are cool because they are cool, and of course their rivals think the exact opposite. This is a chemically pure form of self-admiration whereby you can assemble your own individual profile, admire yourself for it and despise everyone else who looks or listens differently. Since anyone who dresses precisely like you must necessarily be your imitator (the idea of your being her imitator is naturally intolerable), this ultimately means an (Insert Category Here) of one.

The kind of snobbery that was once the preserve of the aristocracy or at least the haute-bourgeoisie has now been democratised, and the pleasures of belonging to an Inner Ring have percolated out from the secretive world of the gentleman’s club to the discos of nowheresville. Whole populations are now standing in the rain, hoping to experience the rush of knowing that they have been admitted where hundreds of others have not. Since no one can predict whom Cerberus will admit and whom he will mock as a loser, the clubbers who penetrate the temenos can attribute to themselves some ineffable metaphysical virtue. For their having become the Elect as the result of a purely random process, e.g. Cerberus using a mathematical algorithm, would be too painful a thought to be borne.

An infamous advertisement may be held to symbolise the nexus between the quest for undeserved self-esteem and consumerism. The self-worth of anyone who can be induced to buy a product by a model telling them, “Because you’re worth it” must needs be a fragile thing; and of course the advertisement disingenuously has it all backwards. In reality, the customers are buying the cosmetics in order to feel that they are acquiring worth thereby. Anyone with genuine self-worth would be immune to image advertising, and thus equally happy with the same preparation in a generic bottle. More pathetic still is anyone who needs some remote connection with celebrity in order to think well of themselves, but this is nevertheless a major avenue for the search for undeserved self-esteem. My mother did this with the British Royal Family, acquiring self-validation from standing in the rain to watch the Queen go by, or treasuring the memory of a word from the cousin of someone “ennobled” for his contribution to Tory Party funds. Others do the same thing with those “famous for being famous”, and bid for their panties on eBay. The fashion tribes, the eschatology of the club queue and the trade in celebrity relics all bridge the two approaches of (Insert Category Here) and (Insert Pointless Ritual Action Here), in a way reminiscent of our next port of call.

Religion is an artificial ethnicity that gives the same permissions for collective self-admiration as membership of the tribe, while adding some novel mechanisms of its own. Sometimes the ancestor of the virtual tribe is held to be a god or goddess, which yields an enormous narcissistic payoff. If the god is not actually into copulation with humans, one can always consider oneself selected by god; both Christianity and Islam, of course, openly appropriated this chosen-people rhetoric from its inventors the Jews, and made it very much easier for self-admiration junkies to sign up. If merely belonging to a god-selected category is insufficient as narcissistic supply, one can always elaborate a mystic ladder whereby one claims progressively higher and grander “spiritual” titles, validated by nothing other than one’s own unsupported word. Indeed, most of the time the word “spiritual” has no discernable meaning other than an unverifiable claim to an ineffable superiority over other parties, especially those requesting evidence.

Mention of signing-up reminds us that religion is at the same time a commercial enterprise, whereby conceptual goods such as promises and permissions are sold on the free market. If we yearn to think unduly well of ourselves, all we need to do is go to the trading floor and pony up the price. The standard deal is that, by performing (Insert Pointless Ritual Action Here), we purchase the right to consider ourselves vastly superior to all those who do not perform (Insert Pointless Ritual Action Here). Similarly, by refraining from certain sexual activities (or not getting caught at them), we buy the right to consider ourselves superior to all those who do not refrain from certain sexual activities (or those who do get caught at them). Concomitant upon that superiority is the right to censure these others very volubly and sometimes even to commit a mischief upon their persons. This satisfies our natural desires both to think unreasonably well of ourselves and to torment our inferiors with impunity. Unfortunately, the morality of Respectability has been subject to unnecessarily complex analysis in terms of “repression” and so forth; in reality, it is a lot simpler than that. Sexual puritanism is merely the fear of being discovered in breach of contract and so of losing those so dearly bought rights to undeserved self-esteem and intoxicating censoriousness.

Respectability is no longer extant under its own name, of course, but under the banner of political correctness is as strong as ever, or even stronger. That legendary Bostonian who first thought to put skirts on the legs of her piano and to segregate the authors on her bookshelves by gender immediately scored points off all such neighbours as left their piano legs indecently bare and their authors immodestly commingled. She was then reincarnated a century later as the arraigner of all sexist speech and ocular harassment, enhancing her own status, at least in her own eyes, by putting everyone else in the wrong.

In addition to purity of speech according to the latest canons, there are many other Pointless Ritual Actions available. As a certain personage once complained, people generally consider what goes into the mouth to be more important than what comes out of it; and so we have all the food taboos, which shade off into the dietary fads. Considered as techniques for the purpose of losing weight and increasing physical well-being, most of these do not work; but considered as a religious contractual exchange, whereby (Insert Pointless Ritual Action Here) grants the right to undeserved self-esteem, all of them work perfectly. The same calculus can be applied to some vegetarianism, also to abstention from foods produced under politically unpleasant regimes; the actual effect of the latter “solidarity” is zero or even negative, but the enhanced self-satisfaction from successful performance of the Pointless Ritual Action endures.

Self-admiration through political correctness does not, however, rely on the performance of (Insert Pointless Ritual Action Here) alone. The other method, the pride in membership of (Insert Category Here), is equally vital to this game. We touched above upon the vicarious participation in the achievements of one’s national group; when the game is played with gender, however, the focus is not on achievements but rather on the bad things that people do, and how all of these pertain exclusively to that human subcategory of which you yourself are not a member and by natural means never will be. This I call Predatory Explanation; because The Others – that is, all those unlike yourself – are mined not only for the usual economic, sexual and emotional resources but also for explanations that exculpate you from all possible charges and reproaches. With a bit of imaginative pseudo-scholarship, you can make the other gender responsible for all possible evil, of which you yourself are exclusively a victim. Consequently, you are no longer any kind of independent agent, so that you need never to consider the rightness or wrongness of your own actions. Result: undeserved self-esteem, instant, infinite – and malignant. Like Seagal’s love, the sectarian liberation of identity politics means never having to say you are sorry. Insofar as actual political ideas have been superseded by “identity”, that is, what to feel superior to others about, politics now means competing delusional superiorities.

If all else fails, we can always find grounds for undeserved self-esteem in our old age, especially as we lose interest in sex and find that sitting in judgment on everyone else is anyway just as much fun. Besides, our species suffers greatly from the undistributed-middle fallacy, the invalid leap from “all wise people are old” (which may not be true anyway) to “all old people are wise” (which is most certainly not true). In actual fact there is no fool like an old fool, presumably because he has practised being an old fool so much longer; but whoever ever met an old person who realised that he was in fact a fool, and always had been? It is hard enough to find an old person who thinks that courtesy is for giving as well as getting. No, however stupid and incompetent you are, however little you have achieved, whatever alarm and despondency you have left in your wake, when you get to a certain age you are officially authorised to think the world of yourself, and make sure that everyone else knows it.

Posted on January 1, 2013 at 12:45 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, A Theory Of Everybody

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  1. Written by bhavya
    on June 16, 2013 at 18:42

    I have similar view about the incorrectness of maslow & erg hierarchy of needs.

    See Nain, Bhavya, Nain’s Hierarchy of Needs: An Alternative to Maslow’s & ERG’s Hierarchy of Needs (June 14, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2279375

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