My Extended Essay in Philosophy: To what extent can ethical egoism can be justified as an effective moral theory?
N.B. This is a long read, and at some points a slightly technical read. But if you are vaguely interested, I did my best to make it a good read too. I even threw in some subtle jokes here and there. I also think it’s an important topic, as now more than ever we, as a species, need to not be egoistic if we want any chance of surviving. This essay essentially argues, from a moral philosophy standpoint, why selfishness (or, ethical egoism) is not justified and is logically flawed. Please enjoy, and give me any feedback you have.
An Evaluation of Ethical Egoism
Selfish, self-centered and egotistical are three adjectives that very few individuals would be proud to identify as. Ayn Rand is one of those individuals. Her philosophy, known as objectivism, can be found in her works of fiction like The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) but is more directly addressed in The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) and smaller essays. Rand rejects altruism (acting in others’ interests) and proposes that it is not only rational, but morally obligatory to be selfish, claiming “one may do things, affecting others, for his own pleasure and benefit. This is not immoral, but the highest of morality” (Rand 1997). Rand makes convincing arguments, and her books are bestsellers. However, there are many clear issues with this theory and that is what initially prompted the author to evaluate it. Rand’s objectivism is synonymous with the theory of universal ethical egoism and as such she is often considered the most important proponent of ethical egoism (Sharaf & Ardakani 2015). As stated in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Ethical egoism claims that it is necessary and sufficient for an action to be morally right that it maximize one's self-interest (Shaver 2015)
This maximisation of self-interest is firmly linked to the theories of psychological egoism and rational egoism, and whilst these two theories will be discussed in my paper, the focus will remain on ethical egoism. Psychological egoism, a descriptive theory, claims that humans always act in our own self-interests (and are incapable of doing otherwise). Rational egoism, like ethical egoism, is a normative theory but claims that it is rational to always act in one’s own self-interests, whereas ethical egoism claims that it is moral to act to maximise one’s self-interest. This Extended Essay will evaluate the question; to what extent can ethical egoism can be justified as an effective moral theory? Moral theories are intended to help us in deciding how to act morally in a given situation (Perkins 2003), and as such an effective moral theory would need to be justified in its conception and offer practical, beneficial guidance in what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It would also need to be complete and consistently applicable to any given situation. Following this logic, the three criteria that the effectiveness of ethical egoism will be evaluated on are practicality, consistency, and completeness. These will be evaluated through analysis of the arguments of ethical egoism and subsequent refutations, incorporating evidence and points from a range of sources to assess its plausibility.
As established, for a moral theory to be considered effective and valid, it must first be justifiably practical. Proponents of ethical egoism, including Ayn Rand, argue that the theory is practical as it aligns with the existing psychological condition of humankind; and it is beneficial and rational to the individual in all circumstances. These two conditions are supported by the oft-accompanying theories of psychological egoism and rational egoism, respectively, but have been controverted a number of ways.
Psychological Egoism and Evolutionary Evidence
In The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand discusses the “enormity of the extent to which altruism erodes men’s capacity to grasp the concept of rights or the value of an individual life; it reveals a mind from which the reality of a human being has been wiped out.” She claims that altruism ignores the reality of what humans are and ethical egoism is the only moral theory that takes into account our psychological actuality. Psychological egoism, the assertion that every action is motivated by self-interest, is used by Rand to validate the practicality of ethical egoism. This relies on the inherent relationship between descriptive and normative ethical theories. Being a descriptive theory, psychological egoism does not claim what ought to be, simply what is; that ‘is’ being a selfishness in every single person dictating their actions. To fully evaluate psychological egoism would require a second Extended Essay, however some important observations can be made briefly. The logical argument for psychological egoism can be considered circular. This has been illustrated in Joel Feinberg’s paper Psychological Egoism (1958) as follows:
"All men desire only satisfaction."
"Satisfaction of what?"
"Satisfaction of their desires."
"Their desires for what?"
"Their desires for satisfaction."
"Satisfaction of what?"
"For satisfaction"—etc., (Feinberg 1958)
This consideration puts a damper on the strength of the theory; the most common objection to psychological egoism, however, is the evidence of apparent acts of pure altruism. Examples used by Peter Singer (1995) are those of Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler who risked imprisonment, torture, and their lives to save the lives of Jews who would have otherwise been murdered in the Holocaust. Singer describes these acts as “heroic altruism.” Anecdotal stories of human braveness and kindness are not the only evidence for altruism. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (1976) posits that individual altruism does, without a doubt, also exist in nature and evolutionary genetics, and has noted a number of cases of “altruistic behavioural acts,” such as the self-sacrificial stinging behaviour of worker bees to save a hive, or the warning signals of birds to other birds to warn against pray, at a risk to themselves. These observations can be countered, though somewhat dubiously, by the notion of enlightened self-interest, which will be discussed in the following section.
Rational Egoism and Game Theory
Rational egoism claims that it is beneficial, and rational, to act in one’s own immediate interests. It is a normative theory, like ethical egoism and, although it makes a differing claim to ethical egoism, it too is supported by Rand (1964). Rand claims it is rational to act in one’s own interests and it is irrational not to pursue these interests, regardless of the expense. Rand also uses this rationality to support ethical egoism, as surely something rational must also be moral. One argument towards this rationality is game theory. Established in the 1950s, by mathematician John Nash, game theory is the scientific study of interpersonal interactions, and the analysis of each person’s payoff based on the decisions they make. The most famous example is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which two individuals are separately given the choice of cooperating with each other or defecting. In the original game the payoffs were varying amounts of jail-time, but the following example will use winning money. Thus, in the situation used here, if both players on a game show pick cooperate, they each win $300. If both players play defect, they both lose $10. If one player plays defects, and the other cooperates, then the defector will win $500 and the other player will lose $100. Regardless of what the other player chooses, the selfish and rational decision is to defect under any circumstance. This dilemma is called so because in the rational decision, both players lose money, when they could have both won money. Whilst the Prisoner’s Dilemma apparently supports, to an extent, the rationality of egoistic action; real-life interactions are not as isolated as the one previously described and this argument is limited.
The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma (IPD) is a more accurate model, analogous to nuclear deterrence, environmental pollution, sport doping and further real-life situations. IPD is the Prisoner’s Dilemma repeated again and again amongst the same players. In The Evolution of Cooperation (1984), Robert Axelrod highlights that, in huge studies of IPD using computer simulations, the winning strategies were “nice”; they always started with cooperation, forgave defections, and were never the first to defect (although blind optimism was ill-advised). The strategies that succeed in this rational game, and are thus the most beneficial, would reasonably be the most rational. Therefore, it would seem that the selfish strategies that egoism would prescribe would not be the most rational in the long-term. As blind optimism also didn’t work, a propensity to temporarily punish defectors was beneficial, and pure altruism is clearly also not a worthy strategy. However, it is important to note that egoism and altruism are not dichotomous and an argument against altruism is not inherently an argument for egoism.
A counterargument to the rationality of these cooperative and non-selfish actions can be found in the aforementioned concept of enlightened self-interest, or as Alexis de Tocqueville described it in Democracy in America; “self-interest rightly understood” (Tocqueville, 1840). Enlightened self-interest is used by Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness and is, in essence, long-term selfishness, including seemingly altruistic acts that ultimately serve the individual's own interests. This can be considered a sidestep of the immediate criticisms of rational egoism. Under this philosophy, the “nice” strategies would in fact be both rational and fall under ethical egoism, as they eventually benefitted the actor. This, in turn, would permit rational egoism.
The Practicality of Ethical Egoism
If we accept that followers of egoism would act with foresight to their long-term best interests, then rational egoism can be considered a valid (though certainly not infallible) normative theory. Consequently, ethical egoism can, under these conditions, be considered rational and beneficial. As the theory of psychological egoism was called into question, and subsequently refuted through scientific evidence to the contrary, Rand’s claim that ethical egoism is the only moral system that accurately takes into account the descriptive reality of human psychology, is deemed invalid. However, whether or not ethical egoism can be considered practical is dependent on the validity of Tocqueville and Rand’s claims of enlightened self-interest, and is therefore not wholly refutable at this point in time, or in any point in the foreseeable future. The next point of evaluation would therefore be the consistency of the theory.
In the same manner that an effective moral theory must be practical, it must also be consistent. A number of philosophers, including Kurt Baier (1958), have accused the theory of being not only inconsistent, but logically contradictory. Another point of consistency to be analysed is the universality and social impartiality of ethical egoism. These two factors contribute to the overall consistency of ethical egoism, and thus, the overall effectiveness and validity.
Contradictions within Ethical Egoism
In The Moral Point of View (1958), Kurt Baier accuses ethical egoism of being logically flawed. Baier uses the example of two individuals (for simplicity's sake they shall be called B and C) who are vying for a presidency. Suppose that, objectively, it is in B’s best interests to have C killed. It is also in C’s best interests not to be killed by B. Baier claims that, according to egoism, if C prevented B from killing her it would be both a wrong and right moral action. Right because C would be acting in her best interests, however it would be a wrong moral action because C would be preventing B from performing his moral duty of killing her (Baier 1958). The implications of this are severe. No action can be morally right and wrong; and no moral theory, or any theory in any discipline, can be self-contradictory. If one is to take seriously Baier’s claim, ethical egoism would immediately have to be deemed invalid and this evaluation would be conclusive.
However, a closer look into Baier’s argument reveals this is not the case. James Rachels (2003) points out that Baier’s claim that ‘C preventing B from killing C is morally wrong’ contains an underlying assumption that it is morally wrong to explicitly prevent someone from doing their moral duty. Whilst this is the belief of many ethicists, including Baier, it is not a universal truth across moral philosophy. An ethical egoist would simply claim that if C preventing B from doing his moral duty benefits herself, than it is morally justified. If this is to be considered, then it is clear that ethical egoism accepts explicitly preventing others from succeeding in their moral duties. This also means it permits others to prevent you from acting in your own interests, and performing your moral duties.
Ethical egoism permits, and one might even argue promotes, an increase in preventing others from realizing their own interests, or ‘good’, and thus a decrease in overall utility. This would suggest ethical egoism is a theory that inherently has the possibility to decrease the overall morality of society. Whilst maintaining consistency, it can be argued that this point alone is enough to disregard ethical egoism as an effective moral theory. Whilst this is not the case universally, the consistency of this theory can be further evaluated.
Universalizability and Discrimination
Universalizability is a pillar of moral philosopher R. M. Hare’s imperative-based meta-ethical theory. In his paper Universalizability (1954) Hare posits that all ethical actions should be based on underlying explicit principles. Hare believes that universalizability should be a key factor of any moral theory. Like Immanuel Kant, Hare claims that an action can only be moral if it would continue to be moral if the person receiving the action were to also perform it. For a judgement or action to be moral, it must be moral regardless of who is committing the action (Hare, 1963). Using an example it is clear ethical egoism is not conducive to this criteria. Returning to B and C, who have resolved their violent impulses but remain in a fierce presidential race; a differentiation of interests is still evident. It is in C’s best interest to praise herself. It would be detrimental to B’s campaign (and personal interests) to praise C. According to ethical egoism, it is moral for C to praise C; it is not moral for B to praise C. The action (of praising C) is moral for C and not moral for B. The universalizability Hare posits is clearly not met in these circumstances, and under the theory of ethical egoism in general. It can confidently be concluded that ethical egoism is not universalizable. Whether or not this proves ethical egoism is inconsistent depends on what we are willing to accept about ethics and metaethics.
If ethical egoism is to remain consistent thus far, we have to concede two details; that an ethical theory that has the inherent capacity to lower overall utility is acceptable; and an ethical theory does not need to be universalizable. In accepting these points, we also accept that ethical egoism treats morality differently based on who is acting and whom it is being acted upon. James Rachels claims that this is unacceptably arbitrary. Rachels (2003) suggests that ethical egoism is in the same family of moral views as racism, and any other forms of discrimination that “involve dividing people into groups and saying the interests of some groups count for more than the interests of other groups.” These groups create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamic that is mimicked in the ‘I’ and ‘them’ mentality of egoism. The Oxford Dictionary (2017) defines discrimination as “unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people.” Rachels supports this notion of injustice, and immorality, with the inherently arbitrary nature of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, or egoism. The difference in treatment can only be morally justified if a clear factual difference between the groups is evident. Other than racist stereotyping and deplorable eugenics, there is no general difference between races. Thus, racism is an arbitrary doctrine. Rachels states that unless there is something that makes ‘us’ special, ethical egoism is unacceptably arbitrary in the same manner. Our morality should include at least some recognition of the needs of others, and this is why “ethical egoism fails as a moral theory” (Rachels, 2003).
The Consistency of Ethical Egoism
In evaluating the consistency of ethical egoism some critical observations can be made of the theory. The inconsistencies in what actions can be morally justified and by whom are evidence that ethical egoism is not designed to promote an increase in the overall utility of society, nor is it universalizable and non-discriminatory. However, although Rachels insists moral theories require consistency in their application, there is no universal consensus and a proponent of ethical egoism would simply disregard the importance of this factor. Nonetheless, egoism is inconsistent in the impartiality of what is moral and in giving equal consideration to interests. Should these be defining aspects of morality? If so, egoism would surely fail as an effective moral theory, however there is still no consensus on what criteria a moral theory should follow; to ignore this fact would be a sore oversight.
The third point of evaluation for ethical egoism is its completeness. Here it is assumed that a moral theory should encompass any situation or circumstance and provide clear answers on what to do in these situations. Evaluating the completeness of ethical egoism will involve revisiting enlightened self-interest and the need for principles. The existence of impartial decisions will further question the completeness of the theory.
Enlightened Self-interest and Necessary Principles
In the evaluation of the validity of rational egoism, and the practicality of ethical egoism, it was established that for ethical egoism to be practical enlightened self-interest would have to consistently be in effect. However, a closer look at this concept raises some questions. When asked to act in our long-term self-interests, how do we know what will be, in the future, to our benefit? How do we determine our overall best interests? We can assume that Rand and Tocqueville ask the individual to make their best judgement, but supernatural abilities would be required to attain the accuracy of foresight required by enlightened self-interest to be valid.
Rand’s most well-known student and advocate Leonard Peikoff, has an apparent answer. He claims that identification of one’s interests is only possible through principles. He argues that self-interest, and thus ethical egoism, is best pursued through adhering to certain ethical principles (Peikoff 2011). Economists, social scientists, and Socrates agree that ‘doing the right thing’ is key to benefitting oneself in the long-run (Downes 2004) (Helliwell et al. 2013) (Plato & Lee 2007, loc. 354). Herein lies a problem. Peikoff does not explicitly elaborate on what these ‘ethical principles’ entail but alludes that they are principles independent of ethical egoism. How we determine what the right thing to do is determined by moral theories. This suggests that we require separate ethical guidelines, in conjunction with ethical egoism, to determine what one must do; an adherent of ethical egoism would rely on a second moral theory. A moral theory like ethical egoism should not require a second moral theory of the individual’s choosing to support it. For a moral theory to be considered complete it would have to be valid independent of external ethical guidelines.
The Existence of Impartial Decisions
A similar criticism of the completeness of ethical egoism can be made using situations of impartial decisions. In situations that have no personal stakes, we require guidelines, or possibly a moral theory, external of ethical egoism. For example: B, after winning the presidency, now has to decide whether D or E will be hired for a job which will not affect her in any way. B has no personal investment in either option, but has to make the decision regardless. Ethical egoism and the belief that each person should seek his own interest does not tell B how to respond to this situation. Therefore, there are certain impartial decisions that ethical egoism doesn’t provide an answer for, and hence one must rely on an external set of principles or guidelines, i.e. another moral theory.
The Completeness of Ethical Egoism
For a moral theory to be complete it should be able to provide an appropriate response for any action or decision. A theory should not rely on any other moral theory to ‘fill in the gaps’, and as there are no details within ethical egoism on how to determine our best interests, or how to deal with impartial decisions, it is an incomplete moral theory.
In evaluating the effectiveness of ethical egoism (as a normative moral theory), this paper examined three factors of the theory; its practicality, its consistency, and its completeness. In can be concluded that although egoism can satisfactorily fulfil at least one of the three criteria, it is unable to meet all three. In evaluating the practicality of ethical egoism, psychological and rational egoism were introduced and analysed, as they are oft-cited arguments for ethical egoism’s practicality. Rational egoism, psychological egoism, and indeed the practicality of ethical egoism all rely on the existence of enlightened self-interest. If enlightened self-interests is believable than ethical egoism can be considered practical, if not, than ethical egoism is not practical. Using Hare and Rachels’ arguments, it was concluded that ethical egoism makes a discriminatory distinction between the ‘I’ and the ‘other’ and is inconsistent in the application of the theory, refuting the consistency of ethical egoism. Furthermore, ethical egoism is incomplete as it relies on external principles, a point supported by the previously necessary enlightened self-interest, as acting in our own long-term interests (or impartial situations) occasionally requires us to ‘do the right thing’, how do we work out what the right thing is? The only place with answers would be another moral theory. As egoism is neither consistent not complete, the extent to which ethical egoism can be justified as an effective moral theory is conclusive: it is an ineffective moral theory.
However, ethics is never so simple. The arguments used to reach this conclusion were either logic or evidence-based but no ethical arguments can be considered entirely objective. Even more importantly, the three criteria that formed the basis of evaluation are not universally agreed upon. This is because there are no universally agreed upon criteria for moral theories. Practicality, consistency and completeness were used as they cover what appears to be a general consensus within the philosophical community on the purpose of a moral theory. Whilst largely opposed by notable philosophers (Russell 1910), ethical egoism remains, as does the likely position of the ethical egoist that the three criteria used in this evaluation were arbitrary. This opens up a realm of epistemological questions, such as the relevance of consensus in certain theories being valid, and whether objective ethical criteria are ever possible. Nonetheless, according to a plausible conception of criteria for morality (practicality, consistency, and completeness) used throughout this paper, ethical egoism can be considered an ineffective moral theory.
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