Moral Egoism is the doctrine that everyone should always
act, or try to act, in her own self-interest, where self-interest is
defined differently from "what she decides to do." (If my self-interest is
defined as whatever I decide to do, then moral egoism says "everyone
should always act, or try to act, in the way she decides to act," which is
the same as saying "everyone should always try to do whatever she's trying
to do at that moment." Which is weird and rather dull.)
If anyone ever should act in a way that is not in her own
self-interest, then moral egoism is false.
Consider Ellen, who has the power to ignore the feelings of others.
Specifically, Ellen can ignore the feelings of her mother and other
relatives. Ellen has the choice between two situations.
Situation 1: Ellen spends Saturday mornings with her relatives. This makes
Ellen's mother happy because of her deep commitment to family ties, but it
makes Ellen miserable because her relatives cannot stop
passive-aggressively harassing her. No matter what Ellen does, she can not
manage to get through these gatherings with any pleasure whatsoever, and
only manages to feel good again when the memory of that morning fades
later in the week.
Situation 2: Ellen spends Saturday mornings hanging out with friends. This
disturbs Ellen's mother deeply, but doesn't bother Ellen at all. In fact
she has loads of fun and feels great the whole week! She notices her
mother's unhappiness, but it doesn't bring her down, and with a little
effort, she can ignore it.
For the purposes of this question, these are Ellen's only choices.
Please note that you do NOT get to change the situation.
You do NOT get to pretend that Ellen gets pleasure,
satisfaction, relief, or anything else out of spending Saturday mornings
with her relatives. Ellen gets a lot of pain and absolutely no pleasure
from this situation.
If moral egoism is true, Ellen should never choose situation one because
it is not in her best interest in any way whatsoever. If she decides to
spend her Saturday mornings with her relatives she is knowingly choosing
to give up a lot of pleasure for a lot of pain. Moral egoism says she
would be morally wrong to do this.
Notice that we can change the situation in some ways without altering this
conclusion. If we make situation 2 better than it is, and make the mall
less fun, moral egoism still says that Ellen should choose situation 2 so
long as situation 1 is even slightly worse than situation 2. In
fact, even if Saturday with the relatives is pretty good, moral egoism
still says that Ellen absolutely should choose situation 2 so
long as the mall is even slightly more fun overall. This is
because situation 1 is still less in her interest than situation 2, and so
choosing it means giving up some self-interest.
Or consider Ralph, who has the power to of self-deception. Whatever the
situation, Ralph can fool himself into thinking that he is not responsible
for any bad consequences of his own actions. Imagine that you are
drowning, and Ralph has the power to rescue you by leaning over and
pushing a button that will lower a rope ladder into the water in the place
where you are currently struggling to survive. However, Ralph has a bad
back, and you are dirt poor, and cannot reward Ralph in any way that would
matter to him. Saving your life would cause Ralph to hurt his back, which
is against his interests, and would not benefit Ralph in any way. If moral
egoism is correct, Ralph should not save your life. Do you agree
Again, you do NOT get to change the situation. You are
being asked a very specific question. Answer exactly that question.
The question is, do the defenders of moral egoism give us compelling
reason to think that no-one should ever choose to something
that is not in their own best interests. This is because if
someone ever should choose an option that is not absolutely the
best option for her, then she should be giving up some
self-interest, and so moral egoism is false.
For hints about the logical consequences of failing to find a compelling
argument for moral egoism, see burden.htm
You may add any other comments or questions you happen to think of.
Copyright © 2006 by Martin C. Young
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