158 MoRALITY AND sELF-INTEREST
unselfish, that you give up your happiness to the selfishness of someone else, or that the person demanding it has just never thought it out.
‘W’hatever the reason, you’re not likely to convince such a person to stop his demands. But it will create much less pressure on you if you realize that it’s bis self- ish reason. And you can eliminate the problem entirely by looking for more com- patible companions.
To find constant, profound happiness requires that you be free to seek the grat- ification of your own desires. It means making positive choices.
If you slip into the Unselfishness Trap, you’ll spend a good part of your time making negative choices-trying to avoid the censure of those who tell you not to think of yourself. You won’t have time to be free.
If someone finds happiness by doing “good works” for others, let him. doesn’t mean that’s the best way for you to find happiness.
And when someone accuses you of being selfish, just remember that he’s upset because you aren’t doing what be selfishly wants you to do.
1,. Browne claims that when we behave unselfishly we, more often than not, sacrifice our own happiness. Do you agree? ‘Why’or why not?
2. Browne says that everyone is selfish because we all do what we believe will make us feel good. Critics of egoism such as James Rachels claim that what makes an act selfish or unselfish is its obiecf, not simply that it makes you feel good. If you are the sort of person who feels good when you help others, then you are unselfish. If you feel good only wben helping yourself, then you are selfish. Discuss the issue that divides Rachels and Browne, and assess their respective positions.
Egoism and Moral Skepticism
James Rachels (194I-2003) was Universiry Professor of Philosophy a the Universiry of Alabama. He is the author of several books, includin The End of Life: Euthanasia and Morality (1.986), Created from Animal: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (1990), and Can Ethics Prouid Answers? And Otber Essays in Moral Philosopby (1997).
EGorsM AND MoRAr sKEprlcrsM From A Neut lntroduction to Philosophy by James Rachels. Edited by Steven M. Cahn (Harper and Row, 1,971,). Copyright @ 1971, by Steven M. Cahn. Reprinted by permission of Steven M. Cahn.
of someone else, or that
ch a person to stop his t realize that it’s his self- ‘looking for more com-
L be free to seek the grat- >ices.
good part of your time rose who tell you not to
or others, let him. That
remember that he’s only r to do.
ften than not, sacrifice our
we believe will make us feel hat makes an
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J. If you are the sort of unselfish. If you feel good : issue that divides Rachels
rfessor of Philosophy at several books, including
,), Created from Animals: and Can Ethics Prouide
ry James Rachels. Edited by r M. Cahn. Reprinted by
JAMES RAcHELS: EGorsM AND MoRAL sKEprrcrsM 1S9
Psychological egoism is the view that human beings always act from a sin- gle motive: self-love. Ethical egoism is the moral theory that says we ought to act only from self-love. Rachels tries to expose the logical and moral weaknesses of both theories. For example, he challenges the view often proffered by defenders of psychological egoism: ‘S?’e are selfish because we always do what we want to do. One person wAnts to visit and cheer up a lonely elderly neighbor; another wants to rob and terrorize the neighbor. Both do what they want; both are selfish. Rachels points out that what makes an act selfish is its object, not that you want to do it. If the object of most of your actions is to please yourself, then you are selfish; if you often want to please others, you are kind. If you want to harm them, you are malicious. Rachels also argues that both psychological and ethical egoisms rest upon a distorted view of human nature. Most of us are sympathetic and care about the well-being of others. The reason we do not burn down a department store is not because it might not be in our long-range best interest to do so, but because “people might be burned to death.”
Our ordinary thinking about morality is full of assumptions that we almost never question. We assume, for example, that we have an obligation to consider the wel- fare of other people when we decide what actions to perform or what rules to obey; we think that we must refrain from acting in ways harmful to others, and that we must respect their rights and interests as well as our own. ‘Sfe also assume that peo- ple are in fact capable of being motivated by such considerations, that is, that peo- ple are not wholly selfish and that they do sometimes act in the interests of others.
Both of these assumptions have come under attack by moral skeptics, as long ago as by Glaucon in Book tr of Plato’s Republic. Glaucon recalls the legend of Gyges, a shepherd who was said to have found a magic ring in a fissure opened by an earthquake. The ring would make its wearer invisible and thus would enable him to go anywhere and do anything undetected. Gyges used the power of the ring to gain entry to the Royal Palace where he seduced the Queen, murdered the King, and subsequently seized the throne. Now Glaucon asks us to determine that there are two such rings, one given to a man of virtue and one given to a rogue. The rogue, of course, will use his ring unscrupulously and do anything necessary to increase his own wealth and power. He will recognize no moral constraints on his conduct, and, since the cloak of invisibility will protect him from discovery, he can do anything he pleases without fear of reprisal. So there will be no end to the mis- chief he will do. But how will the so-called virtuous man behave? Glaucon suggests that he will behave no better than the rogue:
No one, it is commonly believed, would have such iron strength of mind as to stand fast in doing right or keep his hands off other men’s goods, when he could go to the market-place and fearlessly help himself to anything he wanted, enter houses and sleep with any woman he chose, set prisoners free and kill men at his pleasure, and in a word
160 MoRALITY AND sELF-INTEREST
go about among men with the powers of a god. He would behave no bener than the other; both would take the same co.r.s..1
Moreover, why shouldn’t he? Once he is freed from the fear of reprisal, why shouldn’t a man simply do what he pleases, or what he thinks is best for himself? \fhat reason is there for him to continue being “moral” when it is clearly not to his own advantage to do so?
These skeptical views suggested by Glaucon have come to be known as psycho- Iogical egoism and ethical egoism respectively. Psychological egoism is the view that all men are selfish in everything that they do, that is, that the only motive from which anyone ever acts is self-interest. On this view, even when men are acting in ways apparently calculated to benefit others, they are actually motivated by the belief that acting in this way is to their own advantage, and if they did not believe this, they would not be doing that action. Ethical egoism is, by contrast, a norma- tive view about how men ought to act. It is the view that, regardless of how men do in fact behave, they have no obligation to do anything except what is in their own interests. According to the ethical egoist, a person is always justified in doing what- ever is in his own interest, regardless of the effect on others
Clearly, if either of these views is correct, then “the moral institution of life” (to use Butler’s well-turned phrase) is very different than what we normally think. The majoriry of mankind is grossly deceived about what is, or ought to be, the case, where morals are concerned.
Psychological egoism seems to fly in the face of the facts. ‘We are tempted to say, “Of course people act unselfishly all the time. For example, Smith gives up a trip to the country, which he would have enjoyed very much, in order to stay behind and help a friend with his studies, which is a miserable way to pass the time. This is a perfectly clear case of unselfish behavior, and if the psychological egoist thinks that such cases do not occur, then he is just mistaken.” Given such obvious instances of “unselfish behavior,” what reply can the egoist make? There are two general arguments by which he might try to show that all actions, including those such as the one just outlined, are in fact motivated by self-interest. Let us examine these in turn:
A. The first argument goes as foilows. If we describe one person’s action as self- ish, and another person’s action as unselfish, we are overlooking the crucial fact that in both cases, assuming that the action is done voluntarily, the agent is merely doing what be most wants to do.If Smith stays behind to help his friend, that only shows that he wanted to help his friend more than he wanted to go to the country. And why should he be praised for his “unselfishness” when he is only doing what he wants to do? He cannot be said to be acting unselfishly.
This argument is so bad that it would not deserve to be taken seriously except for the fact that so many otherwise intelligent people have been taken in by it. First, the argument rests on the premise that people never voluntarily do anything except what they want to do. But this is patently false; there are at least two classes of
I The Republic of Plato, trans. F. M. Cornford (Oxford, 1941.), p. 45.
o better than the
of reprisal, whY best for himself? clearly not to his
known as PsYcbo- m is the view that only motive.from men are actlng m
motivated bY the rey did not believe lontrastr a norma- ess of how men do hat is in their own [ied in doing what-
institution of life” we normallY think’ rght to be, the case’
JAMES RACHELS: EGOTSM AND MORAL SKEPTTCTSM 161
actions that are exceptions to this generalization. One is the set of actions which we may not want to do, but which we do anyway as a means to an end which we want to achieve; for example, going to the dentist in order to stop a toothache, or going to work every day in order to be able to draw our pay at the end of the month. These cases may be regarded as consistent with the spirit of the egoist argument, however, since the ends mentioned are wanted by the agent. But the other set of actions are those which we do, not because we want to, nor even because there is an end which we want to achieve, but because we feel ourselves under an obligation to do them. For example, someone may do something because he has promised to do it, and thus feels obligated, even though he does not want to do it. It is some- times suggested that in such cases we do the action, because, after all, we want to keep our promisesl so, even here, we are doing what we want. However, this dodge will not work: If I have promised to do something, and if I do not want to do it, then it is simply false to say that I want to keep my promise. In such cases we feel a conflict precisely because we do not want to do what we feel obligated to do. It is reasonable to think that Smith’s action falls roughly into this second category: He might stay behind, not because he wants to, but because he feels that his fpiend needs help.
But suppose we were to concede, for the sake of the argument, that all volun- tary action is motivated by the agent’s wants, or at least that Smith is so motivated. Even if these were granted, it would not follow that Smith is acting selfishly or from self-interest. For if Smith wants to do something that will help his friend, even when it means forgoing his own enjoyments, that is precisely what makes him unselfish. ‘What
else could unselfishness be, if not wanting to help others? Another way to put the same point is to say that it is the object of a want that determines whether it is selfish or not. The mere fact that I am acting on my wants does not mean that I am acting selfishly; that depends on what it is that I want. If I want only my own good, and care nothing for others, then I am selfish; but if I also want other people to be well-off and happy, and if I act on that desire, then my action is not selfish. So much for this argument.
B. The second argument for psychological egoism is this. Since so-cilled unself- ish actions always produce a sense of self-satisfaction in the agentrz and since this sense of satisfaction is a pleasant state of consciousness, it follows that the point of the action is really to achieve a pleasant state of consciousness, rather than bring about any good for others. Therefore, the action is “unselfish” only at a superficiJ level of analysis. Smith will feel much better with himself for having stayed to help his friend-if he had gone to the country, he would have felt terrible about it-and that is the real point of the action. According to a well-known story, this argument was once expressed by Abraham Lincoln:
Mr. Lincoln once remarked to a fellow-passenger on an old-time mud-coach that all men were prompted by selfishness in doing good. His fellow-passenger was antagoniz- ing this position when they were passing over a corduroy bridge that spanned a slough. As they crossed this bridge they espied an old razor-backed sow on the bank making a terrible noise because her pigs had got into the slough and were in danger of drowning.
2 Or, as it is sometimes said, “It gives him a clear conscience,’ or *He couldn’t sleep at night if he had done otherwise,’ or “He would have been ashamed of himself for not doing it,’ and so on.
are tempted to saY, nith gives uP a triP ,rder to stay behind r Dd.sS the time. This ,logical egoist thinks
Siven such obvious rake? There are two ions, including those :rest. Let us examine
erson’s action as self- ,king the crucial fact y, tie agent is merelY , hit fti.ttd, that onlY to go to the country’ re is only doing what
:aken seriouslY excePt
n taken in bY it. First, ly do anything excePt ,i l.”tt two classes of
162 MoRALTTY AND sELF-rNTEREsr
As the old coach began to climb the hill, Mr. Lincoln called out, “Driver, can’t you stop just a moment?’ Then Mr. Lincoln jumped out, ran back, and lifted the little pigs out of the mud and water and placed them on the bank.
‘Sfhen he returned, his com- panion remarked: “Now, Abe, where does selfishness come in on this little episode?” “Vhy, bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. I should have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, don’t you see?”3
This argument suffers from defects similar to the previous one.’Why should we think that merely because someone derives satisfaction from helping others this makes him selfish? Isn’t the unselfish man precisely the one who does derive satis- faction from helping others, while the selfish man does not? If Lincoln “got peace of mindl’ from rescuing the piglets, does this show him to be selfish, or, on the con- ttary, doesn’t it show him to be compassionate and good-hearted? (If a man were truly selfish, why should it bother his conscience that others suffer-much less pigs?) Similarly, it is nothing more than shabby sophistry to say, because Smith takes satisfaction in helping his friend, that he is behaving selfishly. If we say this rapidly, while thinking about something else, perhaps it will sound all right; but jf we speak slowly, and pay affention to what we are saying, it sounds plain silly.
Moreover, suppose we ask why Smith derives satisfaction from helping his friend. The answer will be, it is because Smith cares for him and wants him to suc- ceed. If Smith did not have these concerns, then he would take no pleasure in assist- i.rg him; and these concerns, as we have already seen, are the marks of unselfishness, not selfishness. To put the point more generally: If we have a positive attitude toward the attainment of some goal, then we may derive satisfaction from attaining that goal. But the obiect of our attitude is the attainment of that goal; and we must want to attain the goal before we can find any satisfaction in it. ‘We do not, in other words, desire some sort of “pleasurable consciousness” and then try to figure out how to achieve it; rather, we desire all sorts of different things- money, a new fishing-boat, to be a better chessplayer, to get a promotion in our work, etc.-and because we desire these things, we derive satisfaction from attain- ing them. And so, if someone desires the welfare and happiness of another person, he will derive satisfaction from that; but this does not mean that this satisfaction is the object of his desire, or that he is in any way selfish on account of it.
It is a measure of the weakness of psychological egoism that these insupport- able arguments are the ones most often advanced in its favor. Why, then, should anyone ever have thought it a true view? Perhaps because of a desire for theoretical simplicity: tn thinking about human conduct, it would be nice if there were some simple formula that would unite the diverse phenomena of human behavior under a single explanatory principle, just as simple formulae in physics bring together a great many apparently different phenomena. And since it is obvious that self- regard is an overwhelmingly important factor in motivation, it is only natural to wonder whether all motivation might not be explained in these terms. But the answer is clearly no; while a great many human actions are motivated entirely or in part by self-interest, only by a deliberate distortion of the facts can we say that
3 Frank C. Sharp, Ethics (New York,7928), pp.74-75. Quoted from the Springfield (lll.) Monitor n the OutlooA, vol. 55, p. 1059.
out, “Driverr can’t You rck, and lifted the little Pigs hen he returned’ his com-
in on this little ePisode?’ ishness. I should have had ing old sow worrying over
‘ious one. WhY should we
from helPing others this )ne who does derive satis-
rot? If Lincoln “got Peace , be selfish’ or’ on the con-
d-hearted? (If a man were others suffer-much less
try to saY, because Smith ng selfistrlY. If we saY this #[ .oottd ail right; but if s. it sounds Plain sillY’ Ii”.tiott from helPing his rim and wants him to suc-
take no Pleasure in assist-
seen, ^i” the marks of
rally: If we have a Positive rv ierive satisfaction from
iain*rnt of that goal; and r sadsfaction in it’ Ve do nsciousness” and then try
;orts of different things- 😮 get a Promotion in our ‘e satisfaction from attain- ppiness of another Person’ ,”tt ttt”t this satisfaction is n account of it. rism that these insuPPort- favor. VhY, then, should ; of. a desire for theoretical re nice if there were some of human behavior under r physics bring together. a e it is obvious that self- rtion, it is onlY natural to I in these terms’ But the are motivated entirelY or
‘ the facts can we say that
the SPringfield (Ill’) Monitor’n
JAMEs RAcHELS: EGorsM AND MoRAL sKEprrcrsM 163
all conduct is so motivated. This will be clear,I think, if we correct three confusions which are commonplace. The exposure of these confusions will remove the last traces of plausibiliry from the psychological egoist thesis.
The first is the confusion of selfishness with self-interest. The two are clearly not the same. If I see a physician when I am feeling poorly, I am acting in my own interest but no one would think of calling me “selfish” on account of it. Similarly, brushing my teeth, working hard at my job, and obeying the law are all in my self- interest but none of these are examples of selfish conduct. This is because selfish behavior is behavior that ignores the interests of others, in circumstances in which their interests ought not to be ignored. This concept has a definite evaluative flavor; to call someone “selfish” is not just to describe his action but to condemn it. Thus, you would not call me selfish for eating a normal meal in normal circumstances (although it may surely be in my self-interest); but you would call me selfish for hoarding food while others about are starving.
The second confusion is the assumption that every action is done either from self- interest or from other-regarding motives. Thus, the egoist concludes that if there is no such thing as genuine altruism then all actions must be done from self-interest. But this is certainly a false dichotomy. The man who continues to smoke cigarettes, even after learning about the connection betrnreen smoking and cancer, is surely not acting from self-interest, not even by his own standards-self-interest would dictate that he quit smoking at once-and he is not acting altruistically either. He rs, no doubt, smoking for the pleasure of it, but all that this shows is that undisciplined pleasure- seeking and acting from self-interest are very different. This is what led Butler to remark that “The thing to be lamented is, not that men have so great regard to their own good or interest in the present world, for they have not enough.”4
The last fwo paragraphs show (a) that it is false that all actions are selfish, and (b) that it is false that all actions are done out of self-interest. And it should be noted that these two points can be made, and were, without any appeal to putative examples of altruism.
The third confusion is the common but false assumption that a concern for one’s own welfare is incompatible with any genuine concern for the welfare of others. Thus, since it is obvious that everyone (or very nearly everyone) does desire his own well-being, it might be thought that no one can really be concerned with others. But again, this is false. There is no inconsistency in desiring that everyone, including oneself and others, be well-off and happy. To be sure, it may happen on occasion that our own interests conflict with the interests of others, and in these cases we will have to make hard choices. But even in these cases we might some- times opt for the interests of others, especially when the others involved are our family or friends. But more importantly, not all cases are like this: Sometimes we are able to promote the welfare of others when our own interests are not involved at all. In these cases not even the strongest self-regard need prevent us from acting considerately toward others.
Once these confusions are cleared away) it seems to me obvious enough that there is no reason whatever to accept psychological egoism. On the contrary, if we simply observe people’s behavior with an open mind, we may find that a great deal
a The Worhs of loseph Butler, ed.’lV. E. Gladstone (Oxford, 1896),vo|.2, p.26.
164 MoRALITY AND sELF-INTEREST
of it is motivated by self-regard, but by no means all of it; and that there is no rea- son to deny that “the moral institution of life” can include a place for the virrue of beneficence.5
n The ethical egoist would say at this point, “Of course it is possible for people to act altruistically, and perhaps many people do act that way-but there is no reason why they should do so. A person is under no obligation to do anything except what is in his own interests.”5 This is really quite a radical doctrine. Suppose I have an urge to set fire to some public building (say, a department store) just for the fascination of watching the spectacular blaze: According to this view, the fact that several people might be burned to death provides no reason whatever why I should not do it. After all, this only concerns their welfare, not my own, and according to the ethical egoist the only person I need think of is myself.
Some might deny that ethical egoism has any such monstrous consequences. They would point out that it is really to my own advantage not to set the fire- for, if I do that I may be caught and put into prison (unlike Gyges, I have no magic ring for protection). Moreover, even if I could avoid being caught it is still to my advantage to respect the rights and interests of others, for it is to my advan- tage to live in a society in which people’s rights and interests are respected. Only in such a society can I live a h”ppy and secure life; so, in acting kindly toward others, I would merely be doing my part to create and maintain the sort of sociery which it is to my advantage to have.7 Therefore, it is said, the egoist would not be such abad man; he would be as kindly and considerate as anyone else, because he would see that it is to his own advantage to be kindly and considerate.
This is a seductive line of thought, but it seems to me mistaken. Certainly it is to everyone’s advantage (including the egoist’s) to preserve a stable society where people’s interests are generally protected. But there is no reason for the egoist to think that merely because he wlll not honor the rules of the social Barle, decent sociery will collapse. For the vast majority of people are not egoists, and there is no reason to think that they will be converted by his example-especially if he is discreet and does not unduly flaunt his sryle of life. ‘What this line of reasoning shows is not that the egoist himself must act benevolently, but that he must encour- age others to do so. He must take care to conceal from public view his own self- centered method of decision-making, and urge others to act on precepts very differ- ent from those on which he is willing to act.
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 interest, as he pursues his interest to the exclusion of theirs, then
5 Th. .”p”.iry for altruistic behavior is not unique to human beings. Some interesting experiments with rhesus monkeys have shown that these animals will refrain from operating a device for securing food if this causes other animals to suffer pain. See Masserman, ‘W’echkin, and Terris, “‘Altruistic’ Behavior in Rhesus Monkeys,” The American Journal of Psychiatry, vol.121 (7964),584-585. 6 I take this to be the view of Ayn Rand, insofar as I understand her confusing doctrine. 7 C1. Thomas Hobbes, Leuiathan (London, “1651), chap. 17.
and that there is no rea- a place for the virtue of
possible for PeoPle to act
-but there is no reason n to do anything excePt rdical doctrine. SupPose lepartment store) just for ing to this view, the fact 10 reason whatever whY elfare, not my own, and k of is myself. nonstrous consequences. tage not to set the fire- unlike Gyges, I have no >id being caught it is still ers, for it is to my advan- :rests are resPected. OnlY in acting kindly toward
aintain the sort of socierY rid, the egoist would not le as anyone else, because
;’and considerate. e mistaken. CertainlY it is :ve a stable society where ) reason for the egoist to rf the social BaI4e, decent : not egoists, and there is rample-especially if he is hat this line of reasoning ‘, but that he must encour- public view his own self-
rct on precepts verY differ-
sm be universally adoPted :erests are maximized; and their own interests to the .e exclusion of theirs, then
,ome interesting exPeriments with rting a device for securing food if I Terris, “‘Altruistic’ Behavior in ;4), 584-585.
JAMES RACHELS: EGOTSM AND MORAL SKEPTTCISM 165
such a world would be impossible. So he himself will be an egoist, but he will want’ others to be altruists.
This brings us to what is perhaps the most popular “refutation” of ethical egoism current among philosophical writers-the argument_ that ethical egoism is at bottom inconsistent because it cannot be universalized.8 The argument goes like this:
To say that any action or policy of action is right (or that it ought to be adopted) entails that it is right f.or anyone in the same sort of circumstances. I can- not, for example, say that it is right for me to lie to you, and yet object when you lie to me (provided, of course, that the circumstances are the same). I cannot hold that it is all right for me to drink your beer and then complain when you drink mine. This is just the requirement that we be consistent in our evaluations; it is a require- ment of logic. Now it is said that ethical egoism cannot meet this requirement because, as we have already seen, the egoist would not want others to act in the same way that he acts. Moreover, suppose he did advocate the universal adoption of egoistic policies: he 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 fn/o 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. Ife will fall into inconsistency whenever we try.
‘What are we to make of this argument? Are we to conclude that ethical ego-
ism has been refuted? Such a conclusion, I think, would be unwarranted; for I think that we can show, contrary to this argument, how ethical egoism can be maintained consistently. ‘We need only to interpret the egoist’s position in a sym- pathetic way: ‘We should say that he has in mind a certain kind of world which he would prefer over all others; it would be a world in which his own interests were maximized, regardless of the effects on other people. The egoist’s primary policy of action, then, would be to act in such a way as to bring about, as nearly as pos- sible, this sort of world. Regardless of however morally reprehensible we might find it, there is nothing inconsistent in someone’s adopting this as his ideal and acting in a way calculated to bring it about. And if someone did adopt this as his ideal, then he would advocate universal altruism; as we have already seen, he would want other people to be altruists. So if he advocates any principles of con- duct for the general public, they will be altruistic principles. This would not be inconsistent; on the contrary, rt would be perfectly consistent with his goal of cre- ating 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
8 See, for example, Brian Medlin, “Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 35 (7957),111-118; and D. H. Monro, Ernpiricism and Ethics (Cambridge,7957), chap. 15.
166 MoRALITY AND sELF-INTEREST
the necessary means to the achievement of his goal-and while we might not approve of this, there is nothing inconsistent about it. Again, it might be said, “He advocates one thing, but does another. Surely tbat’s inconsistent.” But it is not; for what he advocates and what he does are both calculated as means to an end (the satne end, we might note); and as such, he is doing what is rationally required in each case. Therefore, contrary to the previous argument, there is noth- ing inconsistent in the ethical egoist’s view. He cannot be refuted by the claim that he contradicts himself.
Is there, then, no way to refute the ethical egoist? If by “refute” we mean show that he has made some logical error, the answer is that there is not. However, there is something more that can be said. The egoist challenge to our ordinary moral con- victions amounts to a demand for an explanation of why we should adopt certain policies of action, namely policies in which the good of others is given importance. ‘We can give an answer to this demand, albeit an indirect one. The reason one ought not to do actions that would hurt other people is: Other people would be hurt. The reason one ought to do actions that would benefit other people is: Other people would be benefited. This may at first seem like a piece of philosophical sleight- of-hand, but it is not. The point is that the welfare of human beings is something that most of us value for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of something else. Therefore, when furtber reasons are demanded for valuing the welfare of human beings, we cannot point to anything further to satisfy this demand. It is not that we have no reason for pursuing these policies, but that our reason zs that these policies are for the good of human beings.
So if we are asked, “Why shouldn’t I set fire to this department store?” one answer would be, “Because if you do, people may be burned to death.” This is a complete, sufficient reason which does not require qualification or supplementa- tion of any sort. If someone seriously wants to know why this action shouldn’t be done, that’s the reason. If we are pressed further and asked the skeptical ques- tion, “But why shouldn’t I do actions that will harm others?” ‘we may not know what to say-but this is because the questioner has included in his question the very answer we would like to give: “Why shouldn’t you do actions that will harm others? Because doing those actions would harm others.” The egoist, no doubt, will not be happy with this. He will protest that we may accept this as a reason, but he does not. And here the argument stops: 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.
Though some may find this situation distressing (we would like to be able to show that the egoist is just wrong), it holds no embarrassment for common moral- ity. ‘S7hat we have come up against is simply a fundamental requirement of rational action, namely, that the existence of reasons for action always depends on the prior existence of certain attitudes in the agent. For example, 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
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JAMES RACHELS: EGOISM AND MORAL SKEPTICISM 167
a berter 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. In this respect ethical egoism and what we might call ethical altruism are in exactly the same fix: Both require that the agent care about himself, or other peo- ple, before they can get started.
So a nonegoist will accept “It would harm another person” as a reason not to do an action simply because he cares about what happens to that other person.’lfhen the egoist says that he does not accept that as a reason, he is saying some- thing quite extraordinary. He is saying that he has no affection for friends or fam- ily, 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. Genuine egoists, people who really don’t care at all about anyone other than themselves, are rare.It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about ethical egoism; it is easy to forget just how fundamental to human psycholog- ical makeup the feeling of sympathy is. Indeed, a man without any sympathy at all would scarcely be recognizable as a man; and that is what makes ethical egoism such a disturbing doctrine in the first place.
There are, of course, many different ways in which the skeptic might challenge the assumptions underlying our moral practice. In this essay I have discussed only two of them, the two put forward by Glaucon in the passage that I cited from Plato’s Republic.It is important that the assumptions underlying our moral practice should not be confused with particular judgments made within that practice. To defend one is not to defend the other.
.We may assume-quite properly, if my analysis has
been correct-that the virtue of beneficence does, and indeed should, occupy an important place in “the moral institution of life”; and yet we may make constant and miserable errors when it comes to judging when and in what ways this virtue is to be exercised. Even worse, we may often be able to make accurate moral jodg- ments, and know what we ought to do, but not do it. For these ills, philosophy .alone is not the cure.
1. The great Renaissance philosopher Thomas Hobbes was a proponent of psychological egoism. Someone once saw him giving money to a beggar and asked if this kindly ges- ture did not prove that psychological egoism was wrong. Hobbes replied that his action was indeed self-interested because helping beggars made him feel good. Evaluate Hobbes’s riposte in light of Rachels’s discussion.
2. If you found the Ring of Gyges and no longer needed to appear to abide by moral rules, do you think you would behave as Gyges did? Do you think that other controls would prevent you from becoming amoral? Explain.
3. \il7hat is Rachels’s strongest argument against psychological egoism? Against ethical egoism? Are Rachels’s arguments persuasive?