Ethical Egoism Questions

Ethical Egoism Questions
Ratheius Netheros
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Posted Mar 21, 2009 - 2:56 PM:
Subject: Ethical Egoism Questions
Put on your egoist hats when considering the following:

I'm sympathetic to both rational and ethical egoism, but I've got a few moral positions I'd like to uphold, and I am wondering how egoism might be compatible with them:

1. Voting (I don't vote, but it seems like an ethical theory should motivate you to vote).
2. Unethical Acts (If you are certain you won't get caught, how does egoism justify not stealing or murdering when it seems to be advantageous. In other words, what makes it beneficial to refrain from such acts).

I'm sympathetic to other ethical theories, but I just can't justify the suspension of self-interest for the benefit of others. In most circumstances where people appear to be altruistic, I would suspect they are either being irrational or actually working for their own self-interest. In other words, I think the underlying ideas behind egoism have made people unfairly equate it with immorality. In reality, it just recognizes the self-interest of the individual as having more value, to the individual, than the interests of others. The interests of others still have value with respect to the self.

The idea of superrationality is appealing as a solution to this dilemma, but I don't think it entirely solves the problems I have with egoism. For instance, we make choices based on the assumption that other people are rational. When we refrain from murdering someone, it is an ethical contract with society so to speak. My problem with this idea is that, in many circumstances, other individuals in society will not behave cooperatively. Since we are rationally aware of this fact, what justifies stealing, not voting, not paying taxes, et cetera, when you can get away with it? Is my desire to justify these choices the result of social norms, an underlying rationality, or a genetic predisposition to altruism? If not, should I seek my advantage at the expense of others in all possible circumstances?

1. I dislike the idea of my desire simply being the result of social norms. If that is the case, it would seem like society should overcome these norms and become more exploitative. I don't think this is in anyone's interests. Our society seems to be based around some ethical contract, but what exactly makes this contract beneficial for the egoist to uphold?

2. Genetic Predisposition. I think there is some truth to this view, but I don't think it is the only reason we uphold contractual norms. If this is the only reason we consider the interests of others, a person who does not have this predisposition seems rationally better-off. Again, I think there is some sort of contractual nature to society that is in the benefit of the egoist, but I am not sure what makes me think this.

3. Underlying Rationality

Basically, I think egoists enter a contract with one another to behave ethically with respect to each other. When that contract is broken by one person, other people should continue upholding the contract because it promotes their interests. What if the benefit of promoting superrationality is outweighed by the losses, such as in the Prisoner's Dilemma. At what point should an ethical egoist abstain from a social contract so to speak?

It seems like egoists enter a contractual agreement with other members of society to forgo their own immediate interests in exchange for others doing the same. The result is a cooperative effort that maximizes the benefit for both parties over the long-term. My problem with this view is simple. People regularly violate this contractual agreement despite it being in their interests (if we assume it is). If that is the case, what motivates the egoist to maintain their end of the contract despite
unenlightened
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Posted Mar 21, 2009 - 3:55 PM:

I'm afraid I don't have an egoist hat; but can you explain to me what is rational about self-interest?
Ratheius Netheros
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Posted Mar 21, 2009 - 5:32 PM:

Before I start, let me say that I am sympathetic to egoist ideas, utilitarian ideas, and even Kantian ideas. If I was confident that my particular view was definitively correct, I wouldn't have made the "hat" remark. In other words, go easy on me. Just because I say something doesn't mean it's reasonable or I'm confident I'm right.

Self-interest is a tangible motivator. You see the immediate rewards of engaging in the action based on inductive reasoning - did past actions benefit you. If you are hungry, it is beneficial to eat. That's in your self-interest. If getting exercise increases your quality of life, it's in your self-interest. If becoming a philosopher does, it's in your self-interest.

Place yourself in two dimensions. The specific worlds are identical except for one factor. In world A, you act according to your self-interest. In world B, you forgo self-interest in specific cases where you consider it "unethical." In world A, you will be happier and live a better quality of life. Is it not rational to choose pleasure over pain or more pleasure over less pleasure? If presented with the option of a somewhat enjoyable glass of warm water and a more enjoyable glass of cold water, aren't you going to rationally choose the cold water? In other words, self-interest has intrinsic value that is knowable with respect to the self.

When deciding if I should do a specific action, I can consider self-interest. It is tangible and accessible to myself. I can weigh it and consider its value. If we shouldn't act according to self-interest, what tangible consideration can you weigh against it as a motivator? Theoretically, you could come up with something. Then I would have something else to consider. Until something tangible can actually be weighed against self-interest, I have no motivation to disregard self-interest.

To consider something as having tangible value outside of the perspective of the individual makes no sense as far as I can see (perhaps you can illuminate why this is not the case). My suspicion is that egoism is unpopular because it is difficult to reconcile it with what we consider fundamental moral norms. I guess the burden of proof is supposed to be on egoism. The problem is I am already convinced. I am wondering what alternative theory you might just for ethical considerations. More precisely, what motivations does this theory provide?

Perhaps the center of our disagreement might arise from my consideration of motivation as so essential to ethics. I think a fair description of ethics is "What people should do in a given circumstance." My point is rational people will be motivated by self-interest. If what is ethical, what should be done, is outside that interest, the concept of ethics is pointless?

You should refrain from eating is our ethical standard, let's say. Nobody will actually follow that standard, for the most part. If ethics do not actually motivate people, they're useless. If self-interest is not required for motivation, what tangible consideration counteracts our self-interest. Why is someone rational going to disregard their self-interest for ethics? If they won't, what value do ethics have?
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Posted Mar 22, 2009 - 1:10 PM:

Ratheius Netheros wrote:

When deciding if I should do a specific action, I can consider self-interest.


To consider something as having tangible value outside of the perspective of the individual makes no sense as far as I can see (perhaps you can illuminate why this is not the case). My suspicion is that egoism is unpopular because it is difficult to reconcile it with what we consider fundamental moral norms. I guess the burden of proof is supposed to be on egoism. The problem is I am already convinced. I am wondering what alternative theory you might just for ethical considerations. More precisely, what motivations does this theory provide?

Perhaps the center of our disagreement might arise from my consideration of motivation as so essential to ethics. I think a fair description of ethics is "What people should do in a given circumstance." My point is rational people will be motivated by self-interest. If what is ethical, what should be done, is outside that interest, the concept of ethics is pointless?

You should refrain from eating is our ethical standard, let's say. Nobody will actually follow that standard, for the most part. If ethics do not actually motivate people, they're useless. If self-interest is not required for motivation, what tangible consideration counteracts our self-interest. Why is someone rational going to disregard their self-interest for ethics? If they won't, what value do ethics have?


There is no question that people often are motivated by self interest. And it seems somehow natural, but I have never seen a rational justification for it. Hence the question. Try this analogy. I pick up a pan of boiling water from the stove, only to discover that the handles are too hot. It is in the self interest of my hands to let go immediately, but this would cause the pan to fall and splash my legs with boiling water, and it is in the self interest of my legs that this does not happen.

Well obviously, my body-parts do not have separate selves, and 'I' act as a single 'self'. So my question becomes, "Why is it rational to draw the boundaries of the self the way we seem to? Is there a difference between saying, 'Well I cannot feel your pain' and 'My hand cannot feel my leg's pain'?

If one looks to evolution, it is apparent that the unit of selection is the organism-in-the-environment' and not the organism in isolation. There is an evolutionary pressure on the organism to preserve the environment and not merely it's self. Dutch Elm disease, for example, cannot outlive the destruction of the Elm trees. This is reflected in the human idea of property; my possessions become part of my 'extended self, by being 'possessed' they come under 'my' protection. My apple tree, my family, my tribe, my country, my world. What then is the boundary of the self? I cannot see, given that we are highly social, and cooperative beings, that it is at all rational to draw it at the boundary of our skin. It does not seem rational to draw it at all. Self interest, I say, is interest in a mirage.
Ratheius Netheros
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Posted Mar 22, 2009 - 1:21 PM:

Isn't the boundary the fact that you can feel it at all? In the case of the hands and legs example, you could employ utilitarian reasoning with respect to the self. You would chose the action that minimizes your own pain.

The boundary being drawn at the self as a whole seems arbitrary. However, the idea is that we can only experience pleasure and pain with respect to the self. As such, we choose particular actions based around that idea. If the interests of the environment or the interests of others affects the self, you can consider those interests.

The line is drawn with respect to the self because it is the highest level someone can experience pleasure or pain. If we experienced the same pleasure or pain when anyone in the world experienced pleasure or pain, we would likely adopt utilitarianism, for instance. It is precisely the fact that we don't, and can experience their interests only as the affect our own, that justifies the boundary placed at the self.

That's how I see it, anyway. I'd like to be come up with a more comprehensive argument or rationale for that distinction, but I'm not sure how to do so.

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Posted Mar 22, 2009 - 2:09 PM:

Well the way I see it, this behavioral model explains why self-interest is often associated with rationality: We humans are fundamentally motivated by emotional urges, and rational thinking is simply a tool used to more efficiently satisfy our emotional urges.

I have yet to come up with a case where the above is not true.

There is a very blurry line to draw between emotional urges that seek to aid others and emotional urges that seek to aid the self, because both of these urges are fundamentally satisfying the self, in fact the self is essentially those urges.

Thus my challenge to you is, what kind of act is against self-interest? What kind of act could you possibly find to be unnatural? Is acting against self-interest even possible?

If you'd like to argue that saving your baby(that you love very very much) who is drowning in a lake by sacrificing your own life is against self-interest, I'd urge you to feel twice.

Perhaps you could take the Randian route and argue against the concept of "moral duty", and I'd surely support that. One possible argument to avoid crime and the like without resorting to "moral duty" is to draw upon your emotional strength and view them as weak acts, stealing from an unsuspecting weak person for example, that would make you yourself weak. Any thrills and benefits obtained from stepping on others is essentially weak, and this doesn't take rationalization after you fully draw upon your emotional strength, it becomes a feeling of disgust. Thus it is not "moral duty", but self-interest, if you must view it like that.

Edited by kkiiji on Mar 22, 2009 - 2:15 PM
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Posted Mar 22, 2009 - 7:04 PM:

Ratheius Netheros wrote:
Isn't the boundary the fact that you can feel it at all? In the case of the hands and legs example, you could employ utilitarian reasoning with respect to the self. You would chose the action that minimizes your own pain.

The boundary being drawn at the self as a whole seems arbitrary. However, the idea is that we can only experience pleasure and pain with respect to the self. As such, we choose particular actions based around that idea. If the interests of the environment or the interests of others affects the self, you can consider those interests.

The line is drawn with respect to the self because it is the highest level someone can experience pleasure or pain. If we experienced the same pleasure or pain when anyone in the world experienced pleasure or pain, we would likely adopt utilitarianism, for instance. It is precisely the fact that we don't, and can experience their interests only as the affect our own, that justifies the boundary placed at the self.

That's how I see it, anyway. I'd like to be come up with a more comprehensive argument or rationale for that distinction, but I'm not sure how to do so.



Well if you limit your rational consideration to what you can actually feel, that is a very tight boundary. Can you feel the loss of your possessions? can you feel the pain that might in the future come to you if you cross the road without looking? This 'self' is already identified as being more than just the body, and being extended through time. It is a construct of thought. Again, what is the difference between my imagined hunger tomorrow and my imagination of your hunger today? I cannot feel either, but egoism takes one to be supremely important.
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Posted Mar 27, 2009 - 3:31 PM:

unenlightened wrote:


If one looks to evolution, it is apparent that the unit of selection is the organism-in-the-environment'


The unit of selection in evolution is the gene.
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Posted Mar 29, 2009 - 12:37 PM:

voyaging wrote:


The unit of selection in evolution is the gene.


Perhaps I expressed myself badly. But it is the function of the gene in the organism in the environment that makes a difference (between life and death). Any old gene that performs the same function will do. My point is that the successful gene must in the long term cooperate with the other genes in the organism, and with the environment - that is where it has to survive. A gene cannot survive on its own.
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Posted Apr 4, 2009 - 9:49 PM:

unenlightened wrote:
This is reflected in the human idea of property; my possessions become part of my 'extended self, by being 'possessed' they come under 'my' protection. My apple tree, my family, my tribe, my country, my world. What then is the boundary of the self? I cannot see, given that we are highly social, and cooperative beings, that it is at all rational to draw it at the boundary of our skin. It does not seem rational to draw it at all. Self interest, I say, is interest in a mirage.


I think that the self can definitely be clearly defined. My self is my consciousness, which is created by my brain. The experience of sentience is my self. Also included in this are senses, emotions, etc. An belonging is only part of the self as far as seeing it, feeling it, etc. It can influence what occurs within our brains, but isn't actually part of our self. The neurons moving in our brains really make up our selves.
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