Man Alive! Chapter 7: A Calculus of Morality on a First-Grade Number Line

Here’s the post that kicked it all off. This is chapter 7 of 12, to give interested readers the chance to take on the free ebook chapter by chapter over the weekend, debate it amongst themselves, or even challenge the author who’s keeping tabs.


From: Man Alive! A survival manual for the human mind.

by Greg Swann

Chapter 7. A calculus of morality on a first-grade number line.

Spirit your mind back to your first-grade classroom. Can you see that number line tacked up above the blackboard? In the middle is the number zero – one of the most important inventions in mathematics, incidentally. To the right are the positive integers – 1, 2, 3 – up to 10 or 25 or 100. To the left are the negative integers – and take a moment to salute the incomparable genius of subjunctivity who first thought to count things that are not in evidence to be counted. Your teacher used that number line to demonstrate to you, by moving his hand to the right or to the left, that 3 + 5 = 8 or 9 – 11 = –2. In other classrooms in other times or places, teachers might have used stones or sticks or an abacus, but the essence of the demonstration, whatever form it took, was that arithmetic is an ontologically-consonant notation system: The map is not the territory, but the map is demonstrably correspondent to the territory. That sort of demonstrable one-to-one correspondence is present in every practically-useful Fathertongue notation system, obviously, and absent from all the useless ones. This is what it means for an idea to be ontologically-consonant.

It seems plausible to me that enumeration – counting things – was the birth of Fathertongue in the mind of the proto-human who passed the idea of notation systems down to us. Real estate is all about location, location, location, and the locations that would have been most valuable to starving ex-brachiators stranded on the savannah would have been those spots on that veldt that were home to the greatest number of things worth eating and the fewest ferocious predators. That’s the kind of multi-variable problem we solve today using game theory and linear programming, but the father of Fathertongue – and each one of the failed fathers of Fathertongue before him – had no one but himself to turn to for answers. If he was right about where to scavenge or hunt, he and his family could eat – for that day, at least. And if we was wrong for a few days in a row, everyone he knew and loved would die in agony.

That is the value of values – discovering and perfecting them in your thoughts and pursuing them in your actions. Unlike every other type of organism, you are not equipped with an in-born survival strategy. You do not know what is food for you and what is poison. You do not know from genetics or race memory where to hunt, what to hunt or how to hunt. The simple fact that you are reading this book argues that you are richer in survival values than 99.9% of all the human beings who trod this Earth before you were born, but you yourself produced virtually none of that wealth.

Do you want proof of that claim? Walk over to the refrigerator in your kitchen and pop an ice-cube in your mouth. Very satisfying – isn’t it? – especially on a hot day. That little piece of ice has a resale value of $0.00 – nothing – but just 100 years ago that ice cube would have been unobtainable in an ordinary domicile. Could you reproduce the ice-maker in your fridge – or even repair it when it breaks down? No. And yet you are so amazingly rich that you never gave a second thought to that one minor treasure, one among hundreds in your vast horde of riches.

You live an easy life, and that has made it easy for you to be thoughtless and glib about your values. You say things like “Whatcha gonna do?” and “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” and you don’t realize that you are making outrageously misleading statements about ontology and teleology – about your own unchangeable nature as a human being. If you are casting about in your mind for a slang expression that would have meant something to the father of Fathertongue, the man who gave you the first treasure in that huge cache of incomparable wealth that you could never have produced on your own, try this on for size: “Some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you.” But even that doesn’t fit, because once the bear eats you, it’s lights out. Game over. Forever.

When you are starving, there is no room in your mind for cynicism or boredom or superciliousness or ennui. You don’t waste your time crafting ridiculous arguments conflating unlike things, and you don’t deface, deride, damage and denigrate the very values you need to sustain your tenuous survival. A starving human being can think of many different things, but it seems hugely unlikely to me that any of those notions would win the approval of the smug jackasses down at the Student Union. They – and you – have the luxury of living off of a legacy of inherited wealth, in the form of the accumulated intellectual and economic power of thousands of years worth of carefully-curated Fathertongue. And like most heirs of unearned wealth, they have lived their lives – at least the life of the mind – as unrepentant wastrels.

And the truth of the matter – and I’m willing to acknowledge it, even if you are not – is that the only reason you are willing to attend to what I have to say now is that the people you trusted to manage your inherited wealth of Fathertongue have squandered your legacy behind your back. You are not staring starvation in the face, not quite yet, but there is an icy dread in your gut suggesting to you that things could get very ugly very soon. I am not a kind man, not at all, but I am not so cruel as to say, “None so deserving.” But, brother, you really did ask for what you fear you are going to get, and, if you do, you’re going to get it good and hard. You have time to learn to do better. While you are still alive, you always have time to learn to do better. But I think you ought to get very serious very quickly. Starvation is pass/fail, with no retakes if you blow the test. If the world turns against you, it will not give you an A for effort, and it will not grade your performance on a curve.

So let’s go back to that number line in your first-grade classroom and see what it can tell us about values – about virtue and vice. Imagine your self as a marker on that number line. You can start at zero or ten or ten thousand for all of me. Did you start with a negative number? That would be an interesting evaluation of your life as it is right now, and I’m not a hard sell on the notion that it might be true. But wherever you started, the issue that should matter to you, going forward, is which way is your life moving?

Suppose you have cheated on your spouse. Would that move your self rightward on the number line, toward greater values – toward a higher opinion of your self, a deeper and more satisfying self-adoration? Or would it move your self leftward, in the negative direction – toward self-contempt and self-loathing?

Do you want to insist that you have an “open” marriage and that betraying your marital vows is a net positive to your existence? Fine. I find that sort of claim to be hugely implausible, but there really are black swans – just not very many. The name for this almost-always-bogus argument, for the record, is the Fallacy of Special Pleading. It consists of conflating the exception with the norm. Journalists love it, as do many academics. It can make for fun reading, if you like to be lied to.

For the overwhelming majority of human beings, cheating on your spouse is obviously the wrong thing to do. Not just intellectually wrong, as it would be wrong to say that 6 = 9, and not simply wrong as the violation of some arbitrary rule of human conduct, like the Seventh Commandment. Cheating on your spouse would be hurtful to your spouse and to your children, your parents, your siblings and your close friends, should your lapse become known to them. And even if it did not, your betrayal would drive a wedge into your family, irreparably wounding long-term relationships that can never be replaced.

But every purposive action you take in your life is taken first by your self upon your self, so the injury before every one of those other injuries will be the harm you have done to your self. You will have seen your self behaving despicably, and this is now and forevermore a fact of your life – and hence a lifelong memory that will come back to you unbidden, again and again – that you can never, ever erase.

So suppose instead that you did something truly wonderful. You started a new business or you converted a guest bedroom into a nursery for the child you and your spouse are expecting. Would that kind of behavior move your self leftward on the number line? Would you feel worse about your self – less admirable, less competent, less confident? Or, instead, as your self moves rightward on the number line, would you catch a hint of Splendor – now and in the future as the memory of your virtuous behavior recalls itself to mind – with you feeling as though you are a falcon soaring effortlessly, high above the Earth?

Of those two introspective experiences – shame and Squalor versus pride and Splendor – which would you say is the better expression of the idea of self-adoration?

This is really easy, isn’t it, when you have trained your mind to think in essentials?

Liars always quibble, alas. They are quibbling with this entire argument, even as they internalize in its entirety – and I will be in their heads forever. And they will try to quibble with you, when you catch them in their lies – to temporize or to shade the truth or to maneuver you into taking their side – but inside their own minds the quibbling can come to be a silent roar of cognitive dissonance. The reason for this is simply that every action is taken first by the self upon the self. A liar has to invent his lie before he mouths it, obviously, but usually the lie and the evil idea it purports to rationalize are born together, monstrous conjoined-twins of the mind. Younger children can get caught flat-footed telling fibs, but older kids and adults, if they plan to try to “get away” with something, will have their lies ready to roll out before they take any externally-observable actions.

There are some interesting conclusions that fall out from that observation. If you prepared your lies in advance, it is because you knew in advance that what you were planning to do was morally wrong – by your own ethical standards. That is the naked essence of evil, just as the good can be understood as doing those things you know in advance are morally righteous. You may want to argue that either doing nothing or not knowing in full consciousness what you are doing are morally neutral acts, and I might just give you a pass on that claim. Behaving that way persistently cannot be anything but a net negative for your future self-adoration, but anyone can make a simple mistake. I can express all of this in a very simple mathematical syllogism: 1 > 0 > –1. And while you might be thinking that this expression is so obvious as to be outright dumb, here is what I think: Now that you have learned that little bit of moral arithmetic, you can’t unlearn it. Like it or don’t, I just took away your future capacity to quibble about lies in a pantomime of feigned innocence. You can still try to pull that kind of stunt – but I will be in your head forever.

Your benevolent and malevolent thoughts, your virtuous and vicious impulses, your vigilantly-guarded secrets and your carefully-crafted rationales – you think these are unwitnessed unless you make them manifest in your behavior. But no purposive human action is ever unwitnessed. Every action is taken first by the self upon the self, so there is always an unimpeachable witness to every action you take, externally-observable or purely introspective – your self. No one ever gets away with anything, hence “the guilty flee where none pursueth.” The people of the lie are even now, even as they read these words, affecting to pretend to make believe that they have “gotten away” with cheating the universe of the truth. But just look at their faces, frozen in a rictus that is half fear and half resentment, terrified that they might let the mask slip and reveal the true self hidden behind it. What thug, what brute, what jailer could ever construct a prison so perfect – invisible, intangible and yet utterly inescapable.

Are you looking for the bright side? It’s there, I promise. It is for the exact same reason – because every action is taken first by the self upon the self – that “virtue is its own reward.” If other people are aware of your good behavior, if they like you more and treat you better because of it, that’s a bonus. But your own interior knowledge of your fundamental goodness is all the compensation you will ever need to pursue still more goodness, now and enduringly. Do you want proof? If you were all alone, your goodness would be no less potent than it is in a throng of millions. But liars and thieves and tyrants are impotent without other people to prey upon – to deceive and despoil and dominate. All of this is obvious to any five-year-old child, of course. Nature is always just, when you see it for what it really is. You have to memorize a library full of unintelligible dogma to affect to pretend to make believe otherwise.

I told you that I do not intend to “should” you in detail. The essence of human behavior – the nature of it and the inescapable consequences of virtue and vice – are by now undeniably clear to you. No one in your life has ever told you why your behavior, good or bad, really matters – until now.

If you commit your life to uninterrupted, undiluted virtue, Splendor will be yours, now and enduringly – and the greater your virtue, the greater that Splendor will be.

And if you devote your life to vice – to lying, to cheating, to stealing, to conniving and maneuvering and temporizing, to dominating other people physically or emotionally, to drowning your own mind with drink or drugs or indiscriminate sex or compulsive gambling – you will get to live with all the Squalor you can stand and ten thousand times more.

No one is good – or evil – by accident, and, in the long run, each one of us gets from his one, unique, irreplaceable human life exactly what he has earned and deserved.

Since Covid killed my Cabo San Lucas vacation-rental business in 2021, this is my day job. I can't do it without you. Memberships are $10 monthly, $20 quarterly, or $65 annually. Two premium coffees per month. Every membership helps finance this work I do, and if you like what I do, please chip in. No grandiose pitches.


  1. marie on July 15, 2012 at 21:05

    “You have to memorize a library full of unintelligible dogma to affect to pretend to make believe otherwise.”
    Brilliant phrase :)
    Lovely concepts to sink teeth into (my antipathy notwithstanding for the father(only)-as-originator-of-symbolic language). But a wee bee tapped-out right now from last brain exercises incited by Richard’s non-libertarian post, so Greg, I hope you’ll be checking in on any comments here later in the week!

    • Richard Nikoley on July 15, 2012 at 21:19

      I read this chapter again after I posted it earlier today and I think it’s about my favorite so far, on a number of levels.

      • Greg Swann on July 16, 2012 at 08:30

        The word “anarchy” is starting to show up fairly often in the prose of conservative pundits. They seem to be waking up to the idea that self-responsibility is all the “governance” that can ever exist. This section of the book, and especially this chapter, provide a metric for effecting self-ressponsibility in existential reality in real time. Why should you choose to do the right thing, even when you could “get away” with doing something atrocious? Because you cannot ever escape awareness of your self. The events of your life begin, but they never end, not until your life as a self-conscious human being comes to an end.

  2. rob on July 16, 2012 at 04:40

    I’ve always loved this dialogue from “Fight Club”

    Narrator: Tyler, you are by far the most interesting single-serving friend I’ve ever met… see I have this thing: everything on a plane is single-serving…
    Tyler Durden: Oh I get it, it’s very clever.
    Narrator: Thank you.
    Tyler Durden: How’s that working out for you?
    Narrator: What?
    Tyler Durden: Being clever.
    Narrator: Great.
    Tyler Durden: Keep it up then… Right up.


    Seems like 9 out of 10 times when people fuck their lives up in a big way it’s because they were being clever. You can save yourself a lot of grief by avoiding cleverness.

    • Greg Swann on July 16, 2012 at 08:33

      > You can save yourself a lot of grief by avoiding cleverness.

      I love it.

      Here’s a useful lens for identifying rationalizations, bogus pre-fabricated pretexts justifying self-destructive actions: If you have to tell your self again and again why your action is justified, it’s because you know without doubt that it is not.

    • Marnee on July 17, 2012 at 14:09

      Cleverness is often just sophistry.

  3. William on July 16, 2012 at 14:01

    Richard, a while back I decided to break the FTL apron strings. I mentioned this as a comment on a post about something along the same vein. I explained that I was not permanently severing ties, but had a desire to move on, as I learned just about all I needed about the paleo lifestyle. After three years of almost daily reading, I felt as if I was part of a choir being preached to. Like the young adult moving away from mom, and dad’s home, I stated I would come back now and then to see how your blog evolves. And that is just what I did today, and I’m glad I did.

    Greg Swann’s book is opening my eyes, and is helping me take another step in understanding why things work the way they do. The following chapter, “You’re in this all alone,” Greg had this to say: “You’ve been told your whole life that philosophy is hard, too hard for a feeble little mind like yours to apprehend. This is false, and, as you’ll gather as we go along, virtually everything you have been told about the life of the mind is false. Philosophy can be arcane, with lots of big words being tossed around. But most of this is simply a smokescreen: The arguments being propped up by those incomprehensible terms are false – and the philosophers making them know it. They write in an unintelligible jargon in the hope that you will not discover that you are being hustled out of every value your life requires.”

    Last Friday, I sent an e-mail to my sister to read to my dying father. He died two hours later at the age of eighty-nine. I would like to share the following part of the e-mail:
    “I remember how you used to talk about the importance of work, responsibility, and individualism. While these principles floated around in my head for many years, I never really appreciated how simple common sense solutions could affect a life so positively. That is until I moved to Oregon twenty years ago, and started to see, and understand groups of people I hadn’t had much contact with previously. Through time, I became acquainted with concepts of liberty, which is something I think everyone of us takes for granted at certain points in our lives. Fortunately for me, I discovered a whole intellectual movement based on freedom. Free market economists such as Ludwig von Mises, philosophers like Aristotle, John Locke, Ayn Rand, and, others became part of my everyday vocabulary. While most of these freedom fighters were [long winded, with endless texts,] none surpassed your succinct, common sense, yet eloquent axioms, which guide me to this day. And for that, I appreciate, and thank you for your tutelage in giving guidance that spurred deep meaning as I grew older.”

    Swann’s premise is dead fucking on in my simple world. You see, everything I have read by Mises, Rand, and all the others were summed up by my father’s observations, and put into simple words that I could understand at eight, nine or ten years of age. My dad never read Mises or Rothbard, and never heard of Rand, even though he talked an awful lot like her. but with plain language. But he never needed to impress anyone with fancy language. I remember back in the early sixties when I was just starting school (indoctrination) he referred to so-called “philosophers” as over educated idiots. The most important principles I learned from my dad were this: Never get involved with, or trust groups. Never trust politicians, or religious people, Think for yourself, and do what you want in life, and fuck everyone else who will tell you otherwise. If you have just one true friend in life, consider yourself goddamn lucky. And this: “Walk through life like you’re in a sphere. Know what is in front of you, to your left, right, behind you, and below you.” As he said, “this will keep you safe, and aware of all the lowlife sons-of-bitches out there trying to fuck you over. And finally, my father used to tell me, “son, go through life as an individualist; nothing else will do.” In my book, the ol’ man was a true philosopher. There now, philosophy isn’t so difficult. Is it?

    I’m still eating paleo style, and exercise [my own] way. By the way, I turn fifty-eight next month, and am still an animal… a “Free Animal.”

    See ya down the road, man

    • Richard Nikoley on July 16, 2012 at 14:20

      Thanks for that, William.

      My condolences to you over the loss of your one and only dad. That’s the second time I’ve had to extend condolences for a lost father in as many days. Sounds like he was an impressive individual.

    • Greg Swann on July 18, 2012 at 23:33

      My grandfather used to say, “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.” He didn’t mean it literally, it was simply an admonition to me to keep my skepticism good and healthy.

  4. Franklin Mason on July 16, 2012 at 15:42

    A bit, umm . . . overblown at places. You do write well, but the rhetoric becomes a bit too hot at times.

    Example: “No one in your life has ever told you why your behavior, good or bad, really matters – until now.” I wonder if you could really know this. I doubt it. You’d have to know what everyone everywhere has ever been told. But perhaps I should just read it as a bit of harmless hyperbole . . .

    Some of what you say reminds me of the views Plato attributes to Socrates. Socrates said that it’s worse to do injustice than to suffer it, for the former but not the latter invariably harms the self. You seem to say the same.

    I’ll end with a question. I’ve become skeptical of the power of the moral ‘should’. Most of my life I’ve carried around a set of moral rules by which I judge my actions. I’m tired of it. I do not mean to say that I do not care whether I am evil. Instead I mean that I wish to be good effortlessly. Lao Tzu put it well: “Throw away holiness and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier. Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing. Throw away industry and profit, and there won’t be any thieves. ” Or again: “The Mast says: I let go of the law, the people become honest. I let go of economics, and people become prosperous. I let go of religion, and people become serene. I let go of all desire for the common good, and the good becomes common as grass.” Reaction?

    • Richard Nikoley on July 16, 2012 at 16:05

      I like your comment, Franklin. Nice way to do a critique, in my view.

      Very thoughtful. That comes through clearly. I liked this particularly:

      “I let go of the law, the people become honest.”

      Reminded me of this:

      “Where there are laws, there will be crime.” Solzhenitsyn

    • Greg Swann on July 18, 2012 at 09:11

      > “No one in your life has ever told you why your behavior, good or bad, really matters – until now.” I wonder if you could really know this.

      Because I had just defined the moral philosophy in which the claim is based. It’s not possible that anyone had told you why your behavior matters, weighed against the idea of self-adoration, because until now no one had told you about self-adoration as the cardinal virtue of your life, nor how how properly to weigh your actions according to that moral standard. In many cases in the book, my uses of forms of the “you” pronoun are deliberate pushiness — an arrogant presumption devised to rattle your cage. In this instance, I know for sure that I am telling the truth because I know that the moral philosophy I am presenting is unprecedented in human thought. How do I know this? Because if someone before me had done this work, we would all be living in a different world by now.

      > Socrates said that it’s worse to do injustice than to suffer it, for the former but not the latter invariably harms the self.

      Socrates did not understand the idea of the self as I do, but that particular argument is cited twice in the book. It kills in Chapter 11, when we come back to some of the ideas discussed here in Chapter 7.

      > I’ve become skeptical of the power of the moral ‘should’.
      > Reaction?

      You are rejecting moral proscriptions, defending that rejection by quoting a bunch of other moral proscriptions. None of this means anything to me. To achieve Splendor, you must make the choices that result in your present and future self-adoration. To attain Squalor, do anything else — or nothing. This is ontologically-consonant teleology. It is shoulding because we are not born knowing what to do. But if your choices correspond to your inviolable nature, your results will be positive, negative if not. Beyond 1 > 0 > –1, I don’t much need for lists of moral proscriptions.

  5. Franklin Mason on July 19, 2012 at 15:45

    I’ll work backwards.

    Your comment about Lao Tzu – that he attacks moral prescription with moral prescription – gave me a chill at first. I would hate if he were self-referentially inconsistent in this way. But I think he dodges that bullet. Take this sentence: “Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing.” It looks like a statement of fact to me, at least of the hypothetical variety. It means that if we throw away morality and justice, then as the fact of the matter people will begin to do the right thing. It’s not that we should throw them away. Instead it’s that if we do, people will be good. It’s like the statement: “If a drop this glass, it will shatter.” No moral prescription. Just a factual statement about how a thing will behave in a certain situation (even if in fact that situation never comes to pass).

    Next. I’ll grant you that the view you articulate is novel, at least if we consider all its detail. (An ethic of self-love is of course not novel, but your view is not just that self-love is the source of morality. You give much detail.) I’ll chew on it – if, that is, I find the time to give your little book a closer read. But I do want to say a word about this claim: “I know for sure that I am telling the truth because I know that the moral philosophy I am presenting is unprecedented in human thought. How do I know this? Because if someone before me had done this work, we would all be living in a different world by now.” So I take it that you claim that, such is the power of the ideas it contains, your little book will change the world. I will come as no surprise that I’m quite skeptical about that. Philosophical arguments of the sort you give have little power to convince people of anything. How do I know that? Induction. In the past, philosophical argument has convinced few people of anything. Thus in the future it will convince few people of anything. Here’s a second reason: for philosophical arguments to convince people of anything, their beliefs have to be based upon a rational assessment of the evidence available to them. But people are irrational – they don’t apportion belief to evidence. Instead belief is dictated my arational and irrational factors – culture, history, proclivity to conformity, etc. Your book won’t make people magically rational (even if we assume for the moment that its arguments are good ones).

    • Greg Swann on July 21, 2012 at 11:25

      Ideas rule the world. The ideas in Man Alive! will undergird the next epoch in humanity’s intellectual evolution. We may have to go through hell first, a circumstance the book goes to some length to avoid.

      I don’t know that I will survive to see humanity adopt these ideas, and I don’t know that Man Alive! will swing the balance unaided. But you can seem me gloating about it on Facebook, anyway:

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