I am taking an Ethics course and we will be discussing Ethical Egoism on Monday. Reading the chapter in my textbook, I was unnerved on how negative it was. I want to refute the criticisms and prove that Hinman set up a strawman. I have some thoughts about how to do this, but would like to hear how other objectivists respond to Hinman. A quick PowerPoint overview of Hinman’s stance on Ethical Egoism can be found at http://ethics.sandiego.edu/presentations/T...iles/frame.html and if you have more time you can also read the relevant parts from the chapter are below.
Excerpt drawn from Lawrence M. Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory, 3rd Edition [Wadsworth, 2002] © 2002
THE ETHICS OF SELFISHNESS: EGOISM
“As a basic step of self-esteem, learn to treat as the mark of a cannibal any man's demand for your help. To demand it is to claim that your life is his property-and loathsome as such claim might be, there's something still more loathsome: your agreement. Do you ask if it's ever proper to help another man? No- if he claims it as his right or as a moral duty that you owe him. Yes- if such is your own desire based on your own selfish pleasure in the value of his person and his struggle. Suffering as such is not a value; only man's fight against suffering is. If you choose to help a man who suffers, do it only on the ground of his virtues, of his fight to recover, of his rational record, or of the tact that he suffers unjustly; then your action is still a trade, and his virtue is the payment for your help. But to help a man who has no virtues, to help him on the ground of his suffering as such, to accept his faults, his need, as a claim-is to accept the mortgage of a zero on your values. A man who has no virtues is a hater of existence who acts on the premise of death; to help him is to sanction his evil and to support his career of destruction ….
“I swear-by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
-A speech by John Galt in Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
In her novel Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand presents a portrait of a man who lives his entire life for himself alone, asking nothing of other people, feeling no obligation to help anyone else. Her hero, John Galt, is a model of the person who practices what she calls the virtue of selfishness. Every man is an island, responsible for himself and for no one else, and genuine morality, consists precisely in striving not to give in to temptations such as compassion. In the fictional figure of John Galt, egoism has become a moral ideal. This chapter is devoted to a consideration of the value of that ideal.
Hinman goes on to use the first half of the chapter discussing Psychological Egoism, the claim that everyone always acts in their own self interest. Then he briefly outlines different types of Ethical Egoism, until he gets to what he calls Universal Rational Ethical Egoism, the claim that all people should do only what is in their long-term self-interest, this is what he implies is the same as objectivism, which he begins discussing (with a strong bias) in detail where we pick up.
Short-Term versus Long-Term Self-Interest
Egoists also draw a distinction between two concepts of self-interest that again depends on our conception of the self but this time centers around the tempora1 dimensions of the self. Self-interest can be either short term or long term, depending on whether we are considering what is immediately beneficial to the self or what is beneficial over the long run. Since pleasure tends to be immediate and calculation tends to look to the future, this distinction often parallels the distinction between hedonistic and rational egoism.
It makes a crucial difference whether we adopt a short-term or a long-term view of self-interest. Actions such as lying, cheating, and exploitation might be permitted in terms of short-term self-interest but prohibited if we considered them within the context of long-term self-interest. Consider a simple example from business. If a person has a small retail business in a local neighborhood and deals with the same clientele year after year, it may well be in the shopkeeper's long-term self-interest to be scrupulously honest with customers, even though in particular cases there might be a short-term advantage to cheating some customers. Of course, if the same person had a business on a major interstate highway and had very few repeat customers it might be in his or her self-interest to gouge them whenever possible, since they are unlikely to return or to otherwise negatively affect subsequent business from other people.
In recent years, this distinction between short-term self-interest and long-term self-interest has become a crucial one for American corporations. In a time of swift corporate takeovers and of relatively short tenures for CEOs, short-term self-interest has increasingly overshadowed long-term self-interest with many corporations, often to the detriment of stockholders, employees, and the country as a whole.
Support for Ethical Egoism
Ethical egoism has been a topic of hot debate among philosophers for several decades, and it has generated dozens of refutations and replies to such refutations. Yet one finds a curious gap in the philosophical literature whole one looks for strong statements of the initial reasons for accepting ethical egoism. There is no shortage of arguments against objections to it, but it is as if ethical egoists tend to believe that the initial commitment to ethical egoism is so obvious as not to need justification. A further contributing factor may be the fact that some form of egoism is a prevalent premise in areas such as economics, which begin with the assumption that all persons self-interested actors. Let's examine those arguments that are available.
The Appeal to Psychological Egoism
Proponents of ethical egoism sometimes appeal to psychological egoism in order to gain support for their own position, but the relationship between the two positions is more complex than one of simple support. As we have seen earlier in this chapter, if psychological egoism were true, then ethical egoism would seem to be redundant. If people inevitably acted in their own self-interest, then there would be no need to urge them to do so. In fact, the very existence of ethical egoism seems to show that some ethical egoists believe psychological egoism is false, Otherwise there would be no need to urge people to act in this way.
The "Better World" Argument
Some ethical egoists advance an interesting argument in support of their position. They claim that if everyone behaved as ethical egoists, the world over, all would be a better place, Many attempts to help other people, they suggest, are misguided and ineffective. Each person is best suited to promote his or her own self-interest, since no one else is more familiar with the agent's own desires and needs, and no one else is more directly in a position to act in the situation than the agent is.
Although this argument may be appealing, it has two serious flaws. First, it makes an empirical claim-namely, that everyone will benefit more if all people act solely in their own self-interest that may well be false, It might well be true in a society composed solely of adults with roughly the same levels of skill and resources, but such a society has never existed. We live in a world with children and the elderly, with the infirm and disabled as well as the able bodied, with the developmentally delayed as well as the mentally gifted, with the poor and the starving as well as with the rich and well fed. We live, in other words, in a world of radical differences, many of which are beyond the individual's control.
Second, even if the argument were sound, it is not primarily an argument for ethical egoism: rather, it is a rule utilitarian argument in which the justification for acting in a particular way is to be found in the way in which it benefits society as a whole. If the justification for acting as an ethical egoist is that it produces the greatest overall benefit for society as a whole, then presumably if it does not do so, we ought not to act in that manner.
The “Altruism Is Demeaning” Argument
The final argument that ethical egoists typically advance has its origins in the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche, a nineteenth-century German philosopher, and in this century is most strongly developed by Ayn Rand in 71" Virtue of Selfishness (1964). Altruistic morality, Nietzsche argued, was demeaning because it was essentially a morality of the weak, a morality for slaves, for the herd, for those who were afraid to assert themselves. Altruism is for people who value themselves so little that they put other people ahead of their own selves. It is, moreover, a self-deceptive morality, for it takes a weakness (namely, fai1iling to value oneself sufficiently) and turns it into a virtue (i.e., altruism). It is, finally, self-serving in a deceptive way. The weak, Nietzsche claims, preach the gospel of altruism in order to gain control over the strong, to try to convince the strong to take care of the weak, to give up their power. Genuine morality, Nietzsche maintains, is about self-assertion and self-transcendence, ideas he discussed under the headings of the superman (Ubermensch) and the will to power. The morality of altruism is a morality of weakness and should be replaced by a morality of strength.
Ayn Rand, as we saw in the opening passage in this chapter, has developed a similar argument, claiming that altruism is about self-sacrifice. Altruistic morality maintains that one individual's interests-and sometimes even that person's life-ought to be sacrificed for another person. Such a morality does not value individuals and their full development. Ethical egoism, she argues, presents a far different picture of morality, one that affirms the absolute value of the individual and encourages all individuals to actively seek that which will promote their flourishing. It is the only moral position that genuinely values the individual.
The “It's Not So Different After All ...” Argument
Finally, some ethical egoists advance an intriguing claim in support of their position. They argue that ethical egoism doesn't really result in such radically different behavior as its critics allege and that the egoist’s perspective actually provides a unifying reason for meeting all the different obligations that we usually meet. For example, it is in our best interest they argue, to tell the truth in the long run. People are more likely to trust us and this to our advantage. We can gain more £Tom a general policy of truthfulness than from one of deceit.
This argument depends on three crucial assumptions. First, it presupposes some weaker version of egoism. Strong egoists who consider only their own self-interest and leave no moral room for the interests of other people are far less likely to act in ways that coincide with common-sense morality or the requirements of other moral theories. Second, this argument takes for granted that we will consider the long-term consequences characteristic of rational egoism. Actions such as lying, cheating, or stealing may be justified in terms of short-term consequences but may not pass the test for long-term self-interest. Finally, this argument is much more compatible with rule egoism than act egoism. The act egoist might find a particular case of lying or cheating to be justified but a rule permitting that as a general policy would hardly further the egoist's self-interest. Thus, the weaker, rational rule egoist would probably act in most-although not all-situations the same way that most moral people would act.
The intriguing part of this argument is that it suggests that there are frequently very good self-interested reasons for being moral, reasons that all too often are overlooked by advocates of altruistically oriented accounts of morality. Seen in this light, ethical egoism can be interpreted in two different ways. On one hand, ethical egoists will argue that this shows that ethical egoism can replace other, competing accounts of morality and introduce into the moral life a single principle-self-interest -on which all moral decisions can be based. On the other hand, critics of ethical egoism can look at the same situation and argue instead that ethical egoism simply provides a second line of defense, as it were, for being moral. When all other reasons tail to convince people, we can often point to considerations of self-interest. In order to help decide which of these two approaches we should assume, let's now consider some of the major criticisms of ethical egoism.
Criticisms of Ethical Egoism
Several main lines of criticism of ethical egoism have crystallized in recent years. They center around four questions that critics pose to the ethical egoist.
• Does ethical egoism yield consistent advice about how we should act?
• Is ethical egoism a morality that its adherents can proclaim publicly?
• Can ethical egoists be good friends?
• Are ethical egoists morally insensitive? Let's consider each of these issues.
A number of critics of ethical egoism have argued that it is essentially flawed because it yields contradictory commands about how we should act. Brian Medlin, for example, has argued that in any given situation ethical egoists must seek to promote their own self-interest and yet at the same time, if they are universal ethical egoists, they must will that everyone else also act to promote their own self-interest. We have already seen the difficulty with this position: Often it is in my self-interest for other people to act against their own self-interest. If I am a salesperson, for example, it is usually in my best interest to have other people pay full price for my products, even though it is not generally in their best interest to do so. If I am an ethical egoist, I seem committed to ensure both that they pay full price and that they not pay full price. Ethical egoism, in other words, seems inconsistent.
We have already seen Jesse Kalin's reply to this objection. There is no more inconsistency in ethical egoism, he argues, than there is in a hard fought game of chess in which each opponent wants to win but also wants the other person to playas good a game as possible. This is an interesting reply, for it may let the ethical egoist off the hook on this charge, but it docs so in a way that gives us a deeper insight into the egoist's world. Essentially, the world of the ethical egoist is a deeply competitive world in which each person is pitted against everyone else. It is hardly surprising that Kalin should appeal to examples from sports and other competitive activities. We will consider this issue further when we discuss friendship for the ethical egoist.
Public and Private Morality
We have already caught a glimpse of a second difficulty for ethical egoists. In order to promote their own self-interest, ethical egoists may well find it to their advantage to hide their moral beliefs, especially in a world that values altruism. If an egoistic politician were making a large donation to a hospital building fund because it was a good tax deduction and would look good in any subsequent political campaigns, it would hardly be to the egoist's advantage to say this. Rather, it would be better to claim that it was being done out of a spirit of kindness and concern fix the community.
Although this might not be an ultimately decisive mark against ethical egoism, it does raise our level of moral suspicion. One of the hallmarks of moral theories since the Enlightenment is that they are essentially public in character. Indeed, some philosophers have even argued that it is precisely the public discussion of reasons that provides the most reliable procedure for guaranteeing their rationality. The reason for this is that genuine public discussion is the best way of ensuring that everyone's interests will receive full and equal representation. Consequently, when we encounter a moral theory that is resistant to public exposure, we are naturally suspicious about whether everyone's interests do receive full and equal representation. A moment's reflection tells us that this suspicion is well grounded. In fact, the egoist's own interests receive much more weight than everyone else's interests. James Rachels has argued that this is the major flaw of ethical egoism: It gives unwarranted weight to one's own interests at the expense of everyone else's without any morally relevant reason for doing so. This is akin, Rachels suggests, to racism, for racism assigns a higher value to the interests of some people than others and does so on the basis of a characteristic (skin color) that has no moral relevance.
There is a second, related issue about the private character of the ethical egoist's motivations. It is easy to imagine situations in which egoists must deceive other people about their motives, and such deception both raises serious moral issues in their own right and poses questions about how close the egoist can be to other people, especially nonegoists. Let's turn to the latter issue now.
One of the more difficult issues for ethical egoism to handle is friendship. Clearly ethical egoists can have acquaintances, and at least in some sense they can and do have friends. Yet it is unclear whether they can have the type of deep friendships that most of us value highly. Even defenders of egoism such as Kalin admit that friendship poses a problem for ethical egoism. Deep friendships are grounded in a mutual concern for the welfare of the other person for his or her own sake, and it would seem that ethical egoism precludes having such concern. Certainly egoists can have friends and can help their friends, but only insofar as having and helping them promotes the egoists' own self-interest.
Consider the qualities many of us value in friends. Close friends are people we can trust-trust with our secrets, trust with our feelings, trust with those parts of ourselves that are most vulnerable. Conversely, we respect, protect, and cherish those same qualities in our friends. Moreover, we trust our friends to be loyal to us, just as we are loyal to them. Just as we stick by them, even when things get rough, so we expect that they will stick by us. Yet is it realistic to expect ethical egoists to do the same? Egoists ask whether respecting trust, remaining loyal and other virtues are in their own self-interest or not. In those instances in which it is in their self-interest to respect trust, they will; in those cases when it is not, they will not. Moreover, since it may not be in their self-interest to tell you this, they may lie and tell you that you can trust them when you can't. This is not, of course, to say that they will always lie. They will lie only when it is in their self-interest to do so. Similarly, they will remain loyal to their friends as long as it is in their self-interest to remain loyal. But they will lie to their friends and betray their mends when it is in their self-interest to do so-and perhaps the most peculiar thing about ethical egoism is that they are morally obligated to do so when it is in their self-interest.
Is this picture of the ethical egoist as a friend too harsh? There are certainly mitigating factors. Truly enlightened rule egoists might realize that there is a big difference between short-term self-interest and long-term self-interest within the context of friendship. The behavior of such egoists might resemble the behavior of real mends; bur even then there would be one crucial difference. Both might show concern for their friends, but the motives behind such concern would be quite different. Whereas genuine friends are concerned with their friends at least in part for their friends' own sake, genuine ethical egoists do not necessarily have any such reason to be concerned about their friends. The only motive that they must have is one of self-interest. They may be concerned about their friends, but only insofar as having such concern is in their own self-interest.
Although moral theories are generally evaluated on the basis of the actions that they specify, it is also possible to consider the sensibility that a moral theory encourages. Typically, an ethical egoist is sensitive to issues which many nonegoists overlook. For example, the ethical egoist is particularly sensitive to the self-deception that most of us engage in, especially when we are trying to think of ourselves as good people. Most of us, the egoist realizes, want to think of ourselves as good people; furthermore, we usually want others to think of us in the same way. This is an essentially self-deceptive desire, for we cannot admit it to ourselves without acknowledging a motivation that is inconsistent with our desire to think of ourselves as good people. A genuinely good person does not do good things in order to appear good, but rather because those things are the right thing to do.
Ethical egoists also tend to see individuals as largely, sometimes completely, responsible for their own lives, and this leads to a curious kind of moral insensitivity and unwillingness to help other people. There are at least two reasons for that unwillingness. First, ethical egoists are more likely than others to believe people are responsible for the misfortunes they encounter in life. Second, and this is in part a corollary of the first belief, they doubt that one person can really do anything effective to help another person. People have to help themselves, and in their eyes attempts at intervention usually create inappropriate dependency and cause more problems than they solve.
The issue, however, seems to go deeper than a simple unwillingness to help other people, although this is by itself no small matter. On a more basic level, there seems to be something that blocks the egoist's compassionate perception of the suffering of other persons. Egoists would seem to show little compassion for the suffering of others, for genuine compassion has nothing to do with self-interest. Compassion just is a concern for other people for their own sake, and it is precisely this concern that is beyond the ethical egoist's grasp. Yet to banish compassion from the ethical landscape is to impoverish our moral lives, to diminish ourselves and our humanity.
Consider three areas in which this issue of moral insensitivity manifests itself: world hunger, the suffering of animals, and our treatment of people with disabilities. World hunger certainly presents daunting problems on almost every level, but presumably the egoist's response is one of pure self-interest: starving people should be helped only when it is in our own self-interest to do so. Yet the egoist's assumptions hardly seem applicable in this situation. Certainly it is difficult to reasonably believe that all those starving people (in Bangladesh, sub-Saharan Africa, etc.) have brought their fate on themselves. It may be the case that a few government and military and business leaders have contributed to that fate, but it is a far cry from saying that the individual citizens are responsible for their plight. The egoist's other concerns about increasing dependency and the possible ineffectiveness of help are hardly conclusive, either. Certainly there is some danger of creating dependency, but some dependency in human life is appropriate. Furthermore, aid can be given in ways that minimize or control the extent to which it creates such dependency. Nor is the concern about the ineffectiveness of help really convincing. Such concern is legitimate, but the best way to deal with it is to find ways of helping effectively, not simply refusing to help. We are not limited to only two alternatives, ineffective help or no help at all.
The suffering of animals also presents problems for ethical egoists. Part of their view is that each person is responsible for presenting, pursuing, and protecting his or her own interests. It seems to follow from that that beings who cannot represent themselves have no standing. This has obvious implications for animals, who cannot represent their own interests to human beings because they cannot speak. Animals cannot take care of themselves in the same way that adult human beings can, and ethical egoism has no way of recognizing this except insofar as it fits into our own self-interest.
Finally, consider the issue of our treatment of persons with disabilities that prevent them from having, presenting, or pursuing their own interests. Some of these cases might be quite severe and present deep moral problems for any ethical theory: people with very advanced Alzheimer's disease, persons in possibly irreversible comas, individuals with profound mental retardation. Ethical egoists would attempt to help such persons only if it were in their self-interest to do so, and it is easy to imagine situations in which it would not be. Ethical egoism condones a moral callousness to the suffering of the disabled that conflicts with some of our deepest moral intuitions.
THE TRUTH IN ETHICAL EGOISM
Ethical egoism is a disquieting moral doctrine. There are good reasons for concluding that it is wrong, perhaps even profoundly wrong, in its exclusive focus on self-interest and in the curious way in which it simply seems to miss the point of the moral life. But even if it is wrong, we can learn from it. There are at least two areas in which the ethical egoist has much to teach us.
First, ethical egoism shows that there are often good self-interested reasons for being moral. All too often, we see self-interest as being in sharp conflict with morality. However, in many situations there are good long-term self-interested reasons for doing the morally right thing. Honesty, for example, is often the best policy for self-interested, prudential reasons as well as for moral reasons. Self-interest and morality, in other words, may often coincide, and one of the things that we can learn from ethical egoism is that there are often good self-interested reasons for acting morally.
Second, ethical egoism may well in part be a reaction to a relative neglect in some ethical traditions of the proper role of self-love in the moral life. Insofar as many ethical theories demand a strict impartiality toward one's own self-interest, they perhaps undervalue the importance of one's own special interests, projects, and attachments in life. One of the strengths of Aristotle's virtue ethics is precisely its recognition of the fundamental importance of the virtue of self-love in the moral life. Yet Aristotle, in contrast to ethical egoists, was able to balance self-love with a genuine concern for the welfare of other people and a deep appreciation of the communal dimension of human existence.
Third, there is an important, if exaggerated, lesson we can learn from ethical egoism about personal responsibility. The ethical egoist sees each person as solely responsible for his or her own existence, as evidenced in the speech from Atlas Shrugged that opens this chapter. Once again, this is an extreme view, but it may serve as a helpful corrective to everyday moral attitudes that tend to see individuals purely as victims of forces beyond their own contro1. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between these two extremes.
The moral life, we have suggested, is characterized by a plurality of values. Different moral traditions are like the three branches of the U.S. federal government, keeping each other in check, each balancing out the influence and power of the other two. We see at least three ways in which ethical egoist serves this function in regard to other moral traditions. It pushes us to reflect on the ways in which our moral motives often coincide with self-interest, to question whether our moral outlook gives sufficient weight to legitimate self-interest, and to probe the extent to which we may be more responsible for our lives than we thought. Ethical egoism helps to keep us honest with ourselves.