Starting at about on
Sanders’ appeared to be acts of supererogation: he went beyond the call of duty, gravely risking—in fact, losing—his life, which is not something his students and fellow teachers could reasonably have demanded. His example suggests that human beings are able to make extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of others. But should we? Or ought we to avoid personal sacrifices, and try to do the best we can for ourselves in all circumstances? According to a view called ethical egoism, it is good and right to be entirely self-serving. It defines our interests or our good in terms of the self, as follows:
for each individual,
1. That individual’s self is good for its own sake.
2. Nothing else is good for its own sake.
Each individual should do just what is in that individual’s greatest interest.
Notice that the egoist’s accounts of the good and the right are agent-relative: they define what is right for me, and what is right for you, not what is right period, unlike an agent-neutral account.
Sometimes ethical egoists take psychological egoism and their analysis of the good for granted in order to defend their analysis of the right. Together, these assumptions seem to support ethical egoism, for they imply that the individual’s self-enhancement is the one and only good the individual seeks. The idea is this: if we cannot help but pursue our own good, and it is the only good we can pursue, isn’t self-seeking behavior right?
What, after all, is the alternative? Suppose someone tells you that you really ought to realize others’ good as best you can--and not simply to the extent that it is in your interest. If your own good is the only thing you can seek for its own sake, it is pointless to tell you to act otherwise: you cannot do so. Surely we can be required to do only what we can do, and we cannot be required to avoid options we choose by necessity: ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, and ‘ought not’ implies ‘can avoid’. In sum, then, the incapacity defense of the egoist’s account of the right is as follows:
1. Psychological egoism is true, so we cannot stop trying to enhance ourselves, and we cannot seek anything else.
2. The ethical egoist’s account of the good is correct, so the individual’s self-enhancement is the individual’s only good.
3. So our self-enhancement is the one and only good we can pursue, and we do so inevitably.
4. It cannot be right to do what we cannot, nor wrong to do what we must.
5. So it is right for each of us to act in self-interest.
One problem with this argument is that it seems pointless to tell us that it is right to do things we will do by psychological necessity. In fact, it seems confused: doesn’t the claim that we are obligated to behave in a certain way imply that we are free not to behave in that way? In response, egoists might weaken their conclusion; instead of saying that
(a) acting in self-interest is morally required,
they might say that
(b) acting in self-interest is not morally wrong (there cannot be moral objections to acting in self-interest).
This response has a significant virtue: (b), and not (a), is supported by the incapacity argument. However, there is a problem: (a), not (b), is what it takes to support ethical egoism as we have defined it.
Another problem with the incapacity defense is that premise 2 eventually will need justification, but let us focus on the heart of the argument, which is premise 1, asserting the truth of psychological egoism. Is this view defensible?
There are three main arguments for psychological egoism; let us consider them one by one.
1. The hedonistic defense: One way to defend psychological egoism is to base it on psychological hedonism, which we discussed earlier. Psychological egoism is compatible with people caring about any aspect of the self, while psychological hedonism says that we care only about experiencing pleasure. Thus psychological hedonism entails psychological egoism (but psychological egoism does not entail psychological hedonism), so by establishing the truth of the hedonist’s view, it would be possible to support psychological egoism.
Unfortunately, however, we cannot defend psychological egoism on the basis of psychological hedonism, for the latter is in just as much need of justification as the former, as we saw in Chapter 5.
2. The hidden motives argument: Another defense says that whenever people
seem to act from genuine concern for the well-being of others, they are really
acting from a self-serving motive which remains concealed in the
background. Many people appear to put their well being aside
for others: the teacher Dave Sanders is
a case in point. There are war heroes
who apparently sacrifice their lives to save their comrades-in-arms, and people
like Mother Theresa, who devote their lives to helping the poor. Before she died in 1997, she spent 50 years
helping lepers and other extremely unfortunate people in
But why should we give credence to this attempt to explain away apparent acts of altruism? The fact that apparently altruistic actions might have been prompted by less generous intentions does not show that these actions really were self-seeking. Psychological egoists cannot rest their case on the grounds that we cannot decisively refute the possibility of hidden motives, especially when the most straightforward view is that in cases like Sanders’ no such motives existed. Offering the hidden motives argument is like showing that an imperceptible man is standing in the corner of the room by inviting us to prove otherwise. It is difficult to meet that challenge, but why should we try when given no grounds whatever for the suspicion that prompted it, and when the suspicion lacks plausibility on its face?
3. The argument by extended self-interest: A final defense of psychological egoism unfolds as follows:
(a) Acting voluntarily is attempting to do what we want.
(b) Attempting to do what we want is trying to act in self-interest.
(c) So acting voluntarily is trying to act in self-interest.
The conclusion here, claim (c), looks to be just another way to express psychological egoism, so this argument by extended self-interest, as we might call it, seems to provide strong support for psychological egoism. But does it?
One minor objection to the argument by extended self-interest concerns premise (a). Doesn’t duty sometimes prompt us to do things we don’t want to do? For example, suppose that a child pays me too much for a toy I am selling, and I want to keep the extra money, but I give it back, because I believe keeping it would be wrong. Then it would be appropriate to say that I have voluntarily done something I did not want to do. Although persuasive, this objection will not deter people who are seduced by the argument by extended self-interest. They will retort that we allow duty to override other considerations only when we want to do our duty!
But what about premise (b)? Is it acceptable? The reasoning in favor of (b) is probably this: whatever we desire we consider an interest of ours and vice versa. For example, if I desire to eat, I consider eating to be in my interest. So when we do what we want we pursue our interests. And the pursuit of our interests is the same thing as the pursuit of self-interest. However, tempting as it is, this reasoning is bad, since it involves equating the following notions:
(i) doing what we want
(ii) pursuing interests of the self
(ii) pursuing self-interest.
Things the self wants need not be things that are in the self’s interest. Only things that enhance the self are in the self’s interest. But the self might want all sorts of things, including things that are harmful to it. Now, if we are going to refer to interests of the self in an argument, we must use it in one sense or the other, not both at the same time. However, we failed to do so. When we equated (i) with (ii), we used interests of the self to mean things the self wants. And when we equated (ii) with (iii), we used interests of the self to mean things that are in the self’s interest.
Why not accept premise (b) even though our reasoning for it was no good? Suppose we simply stipulate that when we refer to acting in our own interest, we mean trying to do what we want. Can’t we rescue the argument for psychological egoism this way? No we cannot, for the argument by extended self-interest will not show what the egoist needs to show, namely that people are always self-seeking. If we use the words ‘act in self-interest’ to refer to the same thing as the words, ‘do what we want,’ then very little is implied by the claim that we always ‘act in self-interest.’ In particular, it will not imply that we care only about the self. In fact, it is entirely compatible with the suggestion that people like Sanders have a motive that is supposed to be ruled out by the egoist: profound concern for the welfare of others for the others’ sake.
All things considered, it looks as if we will have to abandon the incapacity defense of ethical egoism, since it is based on psychological egoism, which itself rests on shaky grounds.
Let’s move on to a second argument for ethical egoism.
THE RECONCILIATION DEFENSE AND THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA
Ethical egoists might try to argue that their account explains common sense ethical principles such as ‘killing and robbing innocent people is wrong.’ They could suggest that a proper understanding of ethical egoism would lead us to accept virtually the same moral principles as common sense. If their theory explains common sense judgments, then common sense supports their theory, and it will be reasonable to conclude that egoists have captured the truth about morality after all.
To align their account with common sense, ethical egoists such as Epicurus and Hobbes begin with two assumptions about common sense morality. One is that moral requirements are conventions, meaning by this that we conform to these requirements in the expectation that others will, too. We are willing to play by the rules, but only because we expect that others will do the same. Still, not every convention we can imagine would be an acceptable moral rule. (Imagine a convention directing us to steal whenever possible.) Why are some potential conventions accepted as moral rules while others are not? This brings us to the second assumption: we adopt conventions when doing so makes each and every person better off. Each person is better off (or at least no worse off) with the convention than she would be without it; the conventions are, as we might say, collectively advantageous. In brief, then, common sense morality consists in conforming to social conventions that are collectively advantageous.
Epicurus offers this conception of rightful conduct (or justice) in the following passage:
Natural justice is a symbol or expression of expediency, to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another. . . .There never was an absolute justice, but only an agreement made in reciprocal intercourse. . . , providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.
Consider, for example, the convention of honoring promises, which ordinarily is judged morally requisite by common sense. The egoist can easily explain why breaking a promise is wrong. If all of us keep our word, each is much better off, and so normally we keep our promises in the expectation that others will do likewise. Many of the things that improve the human condition are possible only through complex, coordinated tasks that people undertake with the understanding that others will do their part.
Having aligned common sense rightful conduct with adherence to social conventions that are collectively advantageous, ethical egoists then suggest that conforming to collectively advantageous social conventions is always in our interest. This claim seems plausible since a convention can be collectively advantageous only if it is in each person’s interest. And now the egoists’ case is complete: if the enlightened pursuit of self-interest is the same as adherence to collectively advantageous social conventions, and adherence to these conventions is rightful conduct as judged by common sense, then morally proper conduct as judged by ethical egoism coincides with morally proper conduct as judged by common sense. Here is a summary of the argument:
1. The conduct endorsed by common sense is simply conformity to social conventions that are collectively advantageous.
2. Rightful conduct as judged by ethical egoism is conformity to social conventions that are collectively advantageous.
3. So rightful conduct as judged by ethical egoism is the same as rightful conduct as judged by common sense.
Is this reconciliation argument a sound defense of ethical egoism?
Some will urge that its second premise is false, since there are circumstances in which an individual will violate collectively advantageous conventions if she follows the ethical egoist’s policy of always doing what is in her greatest interest. To see why, consider a puzzle called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Imagine two (or more) people—say Bill and Jill—who always try to get what is best for themselves. Suppose that they plan to set up some sort of cooperative arrangement, such as the practice of helping each other harvest their crops every year. As an ethical egoist, Bill will think through the possible outcomes of his interaction with Jill and rank those outcomes as follows (giving preference to 1 then 2, and so on):
1. Bill does not cooperate but Jill does. (That is, Jill helps Bill but Bill does not reciprocate.)
2. Both cooperate.
3. Neither cooperates.
4. Bill cooperates but Jill does not.
Cooperates Doesn’t cooperate
Doesn’t Jill’s best, 3rd best
Cooperate Bill’s worst for both
Bill prefers 1 above all other outcomes because it allows him to receive Jill’s help without doing anything in return. Bill ranks 4 below all other outcomes because it puts him through the ordeal of helping Jill without gaining anything in return. He ranks 3 over 4 because he wants to avoid the ordeal of helping Jill. And he ranks 2 over 3 because he can harvest more of his crop in cooperation with Jill than he can alone. Jill will think through the possible outcomes of her interaction with Bill and rank the outcomes in an analogous way (interchanging 1 and 4). But now Jill realizes that Bill prefers 1 over 2, and predicts that he will refuse to help her harvest her crops after she helps him. Bill realizes that Jill will refuse to help him, too. So neither will help the other, because each is afraid of ending up with his or her worst outcome. Instead, they end up with their second worst outcome, outcome 3.
The upshot seems to be that ethical egoists cannot act cooperatively. They cannot conform to social conventions such as promise keeping even though for each and every person the situation in which everyone conforms is better than the situation in which no one does. The problem is that the best situation for a given egoist is the one in which everyone except her conforms, and egoists will try to put themselves in the situation that is best for them. Paradoxically, by attempting to put themselves in the best situation, egoists prevent themselves from reaching even their second-best situation, the situation in which everyone cooperates. Contrary to premise 2, the pursuit of self-interest backfires, and prevents us from conforming to collectively advantageous social arrangements.
In response, egoists might deny that it is rational to exploit cooperative arrangements. The very fact that universal cheating prevents anyone from cooperating with others is itself reason enough for us not to cheat. The prisoner’s dilemma does not show that the universal pursuit of self-interest backfires; instead, it shows that universal cheating backfires, and the rational response is therefore universal cooperation.
But this reply is too quick, since universal cooperation and universal cheating are not the only options. Why not cheat only on rare occasions when I can do so without detection and a great deal is at stake? Of course, leading ethical egoists, such as Epicurus (341-270BC) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), will say that a policy of selective cheating is irrational, and that a policy of not cheating is rationally preferable, since I am likely to get caught cheating, whereupon I will be punished in a wholly unacceptable way, and will acquire a reputation that will lead others to shun me. Epicurus makes this point succinctly in the following passage:
And Hobbes develops a similar view:
He. . .that breaks his covenant, and consequently declares that he thinks he may with reason do so, cannot be received into any society, that unite themselves for peace and defense, but by the error of them that receive him; nor when he is received, be retained in it, without seeing the danger of their error; which errors a man cannot reasonably reckon upon as the means of his security. . . .
But are Epicurus and Hobbes correct? No; unfortunately, we can imagine circumstances in which selective cheating would be rational. In his Republic, Plato described a magical ring that can make people invisible. Wearing this ring--the ring of Gyges, it is called--you could walk into a bank in broad daylight and make off with a billion dollars, and no one could stop you. If you owned the ring of Gyges, it would be absurd to argue that you should refrain from stealing a billion dollars on the grounds that you might be caught and punished. (Perhaps there is some other reason to avoid theft, but punishment is easily avoided by wearers of the ring.)
So why not have our cake and eat it too? When we stand to gain a great deal and the chances of detection are low, isn’t it in our interest to violate practices that are in the collective interest? If so, then premise 2 is false, and ethical egoism as we have defined it implies that on some occasions it is right for us to press our interests against others—namely, when we can do so with impunity. Can we really accept this implication? If not, the reconciliation argument fails.
1. Some people associate the term ‘ethical egoism’ with the view that it is right to be selfish. Is this fair to egoists? Or is selfish behavior by definition wrong? Compare murder, which is by definition wrong, since no killing qualifies as a murder unless it is impermissible. Is selfishness by definition a kind of morally objectionable behavior? Are we selfish when we neglect or harm the interests of others in impermissible ways? Or should we define selfishness in one of the two following ways:
- An act is selfish when we do it because we want to.
- An act is selfish when we do it because it is in our interest.
3. Is the ethical egoist account of the good correct? Consider just one of the goods recognized by common sense: friendship. When are two people genuinely friends? Don’t both of them have to consider the welfare of the other to be intrinsically valuable? And can the ethical egoist endorse this kind of regard for others? Epicurus attempts to persuade us that egoism recognizes the good of friendship, for friendship enhances our security. But does this show that friendship is good for its own sake?
4. If you had the ring of Gyges, would you refrain from stealing and from other forms of harm to others? If so, would your motive for refraining be fear of the consequences of being caught? What would your motive be?
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These incidents are related at the web site http://www.datvis.net/fi/columbine.
Taking our lead from the hedonist’s argument from psychological necessity offered in Chapter 5, we might defend the egoist’s account of the good using the following argument:
1. By nature each individual cares about one and only one thing for its own sake: her self.
2. What we naturally care about is (more or less) what is good.
3. So for each individual one and only one thing is intrinsically valuable: his self.
But at step 1 this argument assumes the truth of psychological egoism; as we indicate in the next section, psychological egoism is questionable.
Principal Doctrines, in Saunders, p. 56 (Doctrines 31 and 33).
Principal Doctrines, in Saunders, p. 56 (Doctrine 35).
Leviathan, in Luper, p. 51.
Nor is it any use to argue that the theft is irrational on the grounds that your conscience will eat away at you if you steal the money. Suppose that like about one percent of the general population, you are a psychopath, and hence completely lacking in empathy for others. Or suppose you had a pill that prevented your feeling guilty just this once. (Actually, the billion dollars itself might be a pretty effective balm!) Clearly, then, selective cheating could be rational.
An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985, Book II, ch. 2.
Bernard Williams, “Persons, Character, and Morality,” reprinted in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 1-20.
Reprinted in Existing: An Introduction to Existential Thought (Mountain View: Mayfield Press, 2000), p. 419.