…entre nous soit dit…

between me you and the gatepost.

Philosophy Essay One: Ethical Egoism

Question Six: Is Ethical Egoism a viable ethical theory? What is the relation between psychological egoism and ethical egoism?

An Ethical theory proposes how morality can be gained in terms of ‘…right and wrong behaviour, and especially of how people ought to behave in relation to each other’ [1]. This means that a set of justified guidelines can be drawn up from this theory of moral behaviour that any man could adopt and live his life by. Egoism is a theory concerning the selfish behaviour of people and the action of pursuing ones own-interest. Philosophers have developed two strands: Psychological and Ethical. Theories have many facets upon which they must be judged before they can be considered viable. In terms of continuing the development of the human race and the world as it is presently, there can only be negative aspects seen within ethical egoism and as a result, in this respect, it cannot be counted as a feasible theory. In societies of this century (and many more previously), the human population has become an inter-dependent, socialising species and humans would not be able to survive with the same ongoing positive advancements if ethical egoism was proven as viable and became the adopted theory. This is because humans would become an antisocial and disinterested race as a result of this moral theory. In order to continue with our society as it is today, it makes more sense to follow the common sense theory which can been seen to be slightly reflected with Egoism, but still as counting against it. For the purpose of this argument I will look precisely at just one aspect of the feasibility of ethical egoism – whether or not it is viable judging by the impact that it would have on society.

Psychological egoism is a simple theory that claims to explains all human behaviour: that people are capable of doing nothing other than pursuing their own self-interest, human nature being what it is. Ethical egoism proposes that in order to be virtuous every person ought to wholly pursue his or her own self-interest, but does not claim to be a human motives theory based on psychology. The difference between the two theories lie in whether promoting our self-interests is the only thing we can do and the only thing we ought to do. While ethical egoism says to be virtuous we ought to follow our self-interests, it doesn’t say that we are not allowed to help others at all – only that you don’t need to promote other’s interests at the same time as yours. However, both of these proposals present a number of problems. The first and foremost, is that if one is true, then the other can’t be – psychological egoism insists that we have no choice but to act selfishly, whereas ethical implies that there is a choice, but we ought to anyway. Of the two theories, ethical egoism is the most disputed, because it still works on so many levels.

One issue that is commonly raised and of great interest is that ethical egoism is compatible with Commonsense Morality. If ethical egoism can combine the commonsense morality, it would be a very good argument as a viable theory. Of the commonsense principles, the duties not to lie, to keep our promises, and not to harm other people, emerge as the most important in order to maintain relationships. James Rachels raises this point in The Elements of Moral Philosophy, with the moderate view of ethical egoism accepting commonsense morality. Without these principles being enforced in society, there will be a resulting deterioration of relationships due to the lies, injuries inflicted and lacking of trust. There is also the likelihood of jail sentences for more people and the possible breakdown of the legal system due to the lacking of need to tell the truth. Rachels argues that these principles are accepted by ethical egoism because it is in our own self-interest not to break them, however this argument both works for and against ethical egoism. While it proves that the theory does not promote morally unacceptable behaviour (by non-egoist standards) which is positive, it also shows that for this to be true, the person would not only be thinking of his or her own self-interest, which goes against the idea of ethical egoism. For example, if a child’s self-interest is to steal a cookie before dinner, they know as a result of satisfying this self-interest, it’s also in their best interest to lie to their mum and say they didn’t take it (and that it was probably their sibling). The reason they know this is because they know it’s in their mother’s self-interest not to let them have one before dinner and therefore she won’t allow it. However this thought process, which allows the child to decide that lying will be the best option, shows that they have to take into account their mothers self-interest as well. This again goes against the ideas ethical egoism, because we don’t have to consider others self-interests at all – it is just a happy coincidence if they concur with our own. Pure ethical egoism would see the child take the cookie and not care about whether or not the mother knows.

In order for the more radical and pure form of ethical egoism to be in place, people would have to become more detached without emotional ties to people so that they are able to focus more solely upon themselves. Rachels also admits that when dealing with friends and family we often have close and personal relationships. He states simply, ‘Bargaining and calculating play a much smaller role, while love and caring dominate.’ [2]. This bargaining and calculating would be essential for any form of egoism to be true and the intimacy would have to be pushed aside in order to make purely selfish decisions. However, this straight form of ethical egoism will result in the break down of human relationships and on an even larger scale societies and populations. Presently, nations are interdependent and every individual relies on a network of other people in order to survive. With this breakdown people would be forced to become more independent, because at the end of the day the only person you could wholly rely on and trust would be yourself. This argument shows that the commonsense theory is vital to our way of living, but does not and cannot be an essential principle within ethical egoism, because it involves considering the self-interests of people other than yourself.

For a person with common sense and good logic, ethical egoism could work. Despite the problems faced in ethical egoism it could be considered to be a viable theory based on the grounds that a person uses logic, common sense, and to and certain extent emotions, to sensibly and rationally assess what their self-interests are.  However without commonsense morality being combined into the theory of ethical egoism, it will only result in chaos, and the deterioration of the populations and societies. Thus on a moral ground, the theory is not a viable one in this respect.


April 4, 2009 - Posted by | essays, philosophy, School Work, university

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