The Virtue of Pickup Artists

In a recent discussion on whether moral philosophy can be useful, redditor Minutenewt had the following to say:

Do you wish to get rich? Do you wish to obtain the best looking women? Do you wish to lead a life of indolence punctuated by greed and rapacity? Then no, moral philosophy will only hold you back.

I think this gets it backwards. In my experience, my most successful friends are also some of the kindest and most conscientious people I know. Meanwhile, my loser friends take flagrant short cuts, and seem willing to expend all their social capital on short-term gains.

That’s not a successful strategy for the 21st century economy, where reputation sticks, and automation is driving up the premia on humanity’s remaining comparative advantage: sociability. Likewise, in the mating market, women seem to value confidence and extroversion, not being an anti-social jerk contrary to popular wisdom.

Take the writer Neil Strauss as a case study. To be perfectly clear, Strauss is a bald, nerdy looking guy who, when he laughs, makes weird chortle noises through his nose. Nonetheless, he is also an expert “pickup artist,” and author of The Game.

Now, while The Game was destined to become a kind of bible for rapacious creeps, I think of Neil Strauss as being in some sense maximally virtuous. That is, he uses an applied understanding of human nature and a high degree of meta-rationality to calibrate virtuous behaviours (self control, discipline, courage) toward — at least one definition of — flourishing.

You may not like his aims, but in the abstract Strauss is simply an expert in human persuasion. He picks up women by using euvoluntary techniques that make the women in question want to pick up him:

If there was anything I’d learned, it’s that the man never chooses the woman. All he can do is give her an opportunity to choose him.

Ethical argumentation works on the same principal. As Hume showed, prescriptive rhetoric lacks access to an ultimate “moral ought” to give itself foundation. And yet, it still has sway over human action. This can only be because effective arguments hit on the right moral aesthetics, encouraging a shift in perspective and motivation.

As further evidence that Strauss is a virtue ethicist in disguise, in a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast he was asked to name the one book he loves so much that he gives copies away. His response: On the Shortness of Life by the infamous stoic Seneca the Younger. What does stoicism have to do with picking up women? Evidently, quite a lot.

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Talk About The Passions

The Stoics give it a shot–at least Seneca the Younger does: talking about the passions. In defining anger, he plays the good Stoic, removing anger from man’s nature altogether; it is an alien characteristic.

Perhaps that isn’t fair: “Man’s nature,” he says, “is not desirous of inflicting punishment.” Inflicting punishment, you see, is the Aristotelian definition of anger with which he cites almost complete accord. Anger, therefore, is not in accordance with man’s nature. Is that fair to the Stoics? I think so.

Are the Stoics being fair to the human experience? I don’t know. I do know, however, that we at Sweet Talk talk an awful lot about virtue, about justice, about honor, and other abstractions. I mean, I’ve been pecking away at AG’s perfectly innocent little post on Justice for two days, now, and I realize that I’m just digging around for nothing, as I told him offline, maybe, finally, for some worthless crystal-nugget of enlightenment. Who knows? Indeed, mine is a pure intellectual pursuit. If I gain intellectually, what gain?

Philosophers seem readily able, armed with massive libraries, to speak with all due palaver on empty prayers and empty mouths, but I don’t know that we have much in the way of philosophical repositories to do the work of speaking about the entire human experience. It’s a tyranny, of sorts, to put the desires of the gut into the hegemony of the intellect. We have made an easy move relegating passions as primal responses to environmental stimuli, but the Stoics recognized that such a passion as anger is not found in the wild kingdom; it is unique to the human experience.

Likewise love. Come to think about it, so is justice, honor, virtue, etc.

“Easy,” as I write above, is a pejorative term, and I mean for it to be. I suppose the long and short of this post is somewhere in this question: Is it ideal that the intellect should rule passions? We certainly like it that way, but Plato’s Divine Maxim requires it not to be so.

Might I suggest, as my tantrum subsides, that newfangled category all the kids are dancing to these days: human dignity. Can we talk more about that?