The Selfish Beetle

Recently I had a discussion about what makes a choice “rational.” My interlocutor held the position that if a choice made sense to the one making the choice, then the choice, was, in fact a “rational” decision — even within the context of suicide. “If it makes sense to me, then it is a rational decision.”

Wittgenstein’s beetle in a box came to mind.

I couldn’t remember exactly how it went. So I was unable to use it as a good example to point to the collective meaning of words. I watched it again and I forgot that the beetle in a box also addresses the annoying proposition: “Everything that we do is selfish” In any case, the discussion was a long and enjoyable one. I won’t reproduce it here. But here is the video.

About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

2 thoughts on “The Selfish Beetle

  1. even within the context of suicide. I’m curious about this phrase. Is it your position that suicide could never be a ‘rational’ choice? Here’s the Wittgenstein beetle in a box. Wittgenstein’s Beetle

    In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein uses an analogy in an attempt to clarify some of the problems involved in thinking of the mind as something over and above behaviour. Imagine, he says, that everyone has a small box in which they keep a beetle. However, no one is allowed to look in anyone else’s box, only in their own. Over time, people talk about what is in their boxes and the word “beetle” comes to stand for what is in everyone’s box.

    Through this curious analogy, Wittgenstein is trying to point out that the beetle is very much like like an individual’s mind. No one can know exactly what it is like to be another person or experience things from another’s perspective (look in someone else’s box), but it is generally assumed that the mental workings of other people’s mind are very similar to our own (everyone has a beetle which is more or less similar to everyone else’s). However, it does not really matter – he argues – what is in the box, or whether everyone has a beetle, since there is no way of checking or comparing. In a sense, the word “beetle” – if it is to have any sense or meaning – simply means “what is in the box”. From this point of view, the mind is simply “what is in the box” – or rather “what is in your head”.

    Wittgenstein aruges that although we cannot know what it is like to be someone else, to say there must be special mental entity called a mind that makes our experiences private is wrong. Part of the reason he thinks this way is because he considers language to have meaning through public usage. In other words, when we talk of having a mind (or a beetle), we are using a term that we have learnt through conversation and public discourse. Furthermore, the word we have learnt can only ever mean “whatever is in your box” – i.e. your mind – and should not therefore be used to refer to some entity or special mental substance since no one can know that such a thing exists (we cannot see into other people’s boxes).


  2. I agree completely with your description of the beetle in the box. Thank you for this comment. I will try and clarify my position.

    I took the position that if what we call “rational” that which makes sense to the one acting, then the word loses it’s most, if not all, of its collective meaning. As in, I decide what this word means, its meaning comes from what I deem to be meaning, and I get that from myself and not from anyone else. If we were to accept the idea that what is “rational” is what makes sense to the person using it, then we have to accept all actions as valid and acceptable: even passionate murder makes sense at all times because the person doing it is convinced that it make sense, but in a few years they will probably say,” oh yes, that was irrational.” Being rational is also being aware that the current moment does not monopolize truth, and what makes sense.

    In the case of suicide, context is extremely important.

    The example I gave was of a bullied transgender person in high school. For them, there SEEMS to be no options. For those transgender people who have survived high school and have found hope and meaning since leaving that situation, they can say that “no, it is not rational because they are not provided with the options which would enable them to see the situation in a new way.” So, it doesn’t make sense for this person to commit suicide because presumably they would want to live if people weren’t being assholes to them. In other words, they just want people to not hate, but love them. There are support groups that aim at remedying such a situation. Thus they are not acting rationally; in fact, they are incapable of acting rationally and that is the fault of society.

    Assisted suicide is another issue. Our current societies obsession with enjoyment, life and fear of death don’t often translate into giving a dying person the freedom of choice.


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