Moral Egoism

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 with this?

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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