Ethical Egoism - James Rachels Shows You How NOT to Argue Against an Egoist
Imagine that you’re having a calm conversation with an acquaintance and you decide you want to punch him in the face just to see what it’s like to hit someone. You don’t have anger issues and you’re not a member of Fight Club. Plus even if you were a member you couldn’t talk about it.
Is the fact that it would cause him pain were you to hit him in the face a reason not to do it?
Today we’re considering a radical theory that answers“no”. Ethical egoism holds that an act is morally right just in case it’s in the person’s self-interest. If you want to punch your acquaintance in the face, it’s morally okay for you to do so. His pain doesn’t give you a reason not to hit him.
We’ll uncover logical holes in this theory. And we’ll end with a special bonus. We’ll follow Rachels in considering the limits of philosophy. Welcome to The Philosophical Life!
Watch a video version of this post below. Or skip over the video to continue reading the blog version.
James Rachels on “Egoism and Moral Skepticism”
Last time we looked at Rachels’ take on psychological egoism, which claims that people are only or ultimately motivated by self-interest. Check out the video version of that post at this link.
Going back to the punching example. An ethical egoist might respond,“it’s not in your self-interest to punch the person in the face. For all you know the person might be an ex-MMA fighter. They might respond by beating you up badly. Or they might call the police and have you thrown in jail.
Plus even if you could get away with hitting them in the face, it’s better for you if you live in a culture in which rights violations don’t regularly occur. Not hitting them in the face would be doing your part to live in the sort of society it’s in your advantage to live in. So, the ethical egoist wouldn’t be a bad person that randomly harms other people.
Rachels thinks this doesn’t work. It doesn’t show that the egoist must act respectfully to others for the good of his own self-interest. After all, most people in society are not egoists. The egoist just needs to wave the altruism banner, convincing people he cares about their interests, in order for him to safely live in a society where he can, hopefully without getting caught, do whatever he wants to others.
As Rachels says,
“The rational egoist, then, cannot advocate that egoism be universally adopted by everyone. For he wants a world in which his own interests are maximized; and if other people adopted the egoistic policy of pursuing their own interests to the exclusion of his interests, as he pursues his interests to the exclusion of theirs, then such a world would be impossible. So he himself will be an egoist, but he will want others to be altruists.”
An Argument Against Egoism that Doesn’t Work
Next Rachels considers a popular way of arguing against ethical egoism and he concludes the argument doesn’t work. This line of reasoning is related to Thomas Nagel’s take on right and wrong as we discussed in this video.
Consistency is a mark of good moral reasoning. Like cases must be treated alike. It’s irrational to treat like cases differently. Applying this to what it’s right to do:
“To say that any action or policy of action is right(or that it ought to be adopted) entails that it is right for anyone in the same sort of circumstances.”
Yet, there’s a problem. The egoist needs to hold an inconsistent evaluation of what he should do and what others should do in the same situation. Why? If the egoist thought that everyone everywhere should adopt egoism, namely that it’s the right view for all people to endorse, then as Rachels argues by way of a case involving Peter and Paul, the egoist:
“would be saying to Peter,“You ought to pursue your own interests even if it means destroying Paul”; and he would be saying to Paul,“You ought to pursue your own interests even if it means destroying Peter.” The attitudes expressed in these two recommendations seem clearly inconsistent—he is urging the advancement of Peter’s interest at one moment, and countenancing their defeat at the next. Therefore, the argument goes, there is no way to maintain the doctrine of ethical egoism as a consistent view about how we ought to act. We will fall into inconsistency whenever we try.”
Interestingly, Rachels doesn’t think this argument against ethical egoism works to refute the view. Why not? The egoist wouldn’t need to lobby for everyone to adopt egoism. Instead, he’d publicly advocate altruistic principles. He’d hope that everyone would act to maximize not just their own interests but also act to promote the interests of others. This wouldn’t be inconsistent because, as Rachels says,
“it would be perfectly consistent with his goal of creating a world in which his own interests are maximized. To be sure, he would have to be deceitful; in order to secure the good will of others, and a favorable hearing for his exhortations to altruism, he would have to pretend that he was himself prepared to accept altruistic principles. But again, that would be all right; from the egoist’s point of view, this would merely be a matter of adopting the necessary means to the achievement of his goal—and while we might not approve of this, there is nothing inconsistent about it.”
Now, you might worry,“Isn’t the egoist being inconsistent because he’s hypocritical?” No, because there’s no logical problem with wanting to live in an egoist world and bringing about that world by promoting altruistic principles. His goal is promotion of his own self-interest. If that’s to consistently happen, others will need to be altruists, so he advocates the necessary means to achieving his egoistic goal. He’s being rational in adopting the best means to achieve his ends, which are egoistic.
Rachels’ Objections to Ethical Egoism
Though ethical egoism cannot be undermined as logically inconsistent and flawed, Rachels’s argues its an untenable view. This leads us to the special bonus on the limits of philosophy.
Let me briefly mention Rachels objections. First, Rachels objects that human well-being is valuable for its own sake. It’s not valuable as a means to something else. So, if that person that kicked off this video were to ask you,“why shouldn’t I punch that person in the face?” you might respond,“Because if you punch them in the face it’s likely to hurt if not severely harm them.” If the potential face-puncher is a moral skeptic and presses,“Why should I not do what will harm others?” a sensible answer is“Because it will harm others.”
This answer is not satisfying, but if human well-being is valuable for its own sake, then a sufficient complete reason to not do something that will harm someone is that it will harm them.” It’s not like there’s some further thing harming of welfare rests on or needs to promote. Promoting human welfare is intrinsically valuable in that way.
If the egoist won’t accept that reason, then we’ve reached the limits of what we can do through argumentation. Here’s where we hit the bonus on the limits of philosophy.
Bonus: The Limits of Philosophy
The skeptical line just pressed by the egoist takes us against the limits of philosophy. Philosophy is not sophistry or mere emotional persuasion. It works through reason and argumentation. It assumes that people are open to reason. If someone proves they are not open to reason, then at that point then the person bent on behavior harmful to others may need to be institutionalized in various capacities.
True egoists care nothing for the welfare of any others. They pursue self-interest flat out. Philosophy cannot resolves this sort of lack of concern for others. As Rachels adeptly points out,
“there are limits to what can be accomplished by argument, and if the egoist really doesn’t care about other people—if he honestly doesn’t care whether they are helped or hurt by his actions—then we have reached those limits. If we want to persuade him to act decently toward his fellow humans, we will have to make our appeal to such other attitudes as he does possess, by threats, bribes, or other cajolery. That is all that we can do.”
The interesting insight that comes out of hitting this limit is that having certain reasons for action or recognizing them as such required agents to have specific attitudes prior to adopting those reasons. By way of examples Rachels says,
“the fact that a certain course of action would make the agent a lot of money is a reason for doing it only if the agent wants to make money; the fact that practicing at chess makes one a better player is a reason for practicing only if one wants to be a better player; and so on. Similarly, the fact that a certain action would help the agent is a reason for doing the action only if the agent cares about his own welfare, and the fact that an action would help others is a reason for doing it only if the agent cares about others.”
Before entering into moral discussion, should the participates be open to persuasion by the ethical egoist or the ethical altruist requires,“that the agent care about himself, or about other people, before they can get started.”
A non-egoist would take the fact that an act would harm a person as a reason not to do the action. Such a person cares about the welfare of others. Thus, as Rachels says,
“When the egoist says that he does not accept that as a reason, he is saying something quite extraordinary. He is saying that he has no affection for friends or family, that he never feels pity or compassion, that he is the sort of person who can look on scenes of human misery with complete indifference, so long as he is not the one suffering.”
Here we’ve hit the limits of philosophy when it comes to ethics. Morality requires some sort of sympathy. It requires the ability to sympathize with others. If a person only cares for themselves, then such a person needs psychological intervention or institutional intervention. They are beyond the reach of reason and argumentation at that point. The worry is that such people harm others severely on their way to institutions. So recognizing the limits of philosophy hopefully promotes early intervention for those, though rare, that are true egoists and do not care about the welfare of others.
If you got something out of this video, smash the like button and share it with a philosophical friend. Keep living The Philosophical Life.
To prepare for the next video in the series, please read Chapter 9 in Exploring Ethics on“Happiness and Immorality.”
Wishing you the best during these uncertain times.
Reference: James Rachels, "Egoism and Moral Skepticism," Chapter 8 in Exploring Ethics (2020, 5th ed.), Steven M. Cahn (ed.), Oxford University Press.