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8.3: Ethical Theory and Ethical Egoism

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    Ethical Theories

    If Normative Ethical Relativism is flawed and cannot provide for a basis for moral society for humans on planet earth, then what is to provide that basis? What would provide a basis for universal moral codes?

    On Morality by Lowell Kleiman

    If by "morality" we mean a code of conduct that is universally valid, then the basic issue in the study of ethics is--Is there a universally valid code of conduct? Are there rules of behavior that prescribe how a person should conduct themselves in all places and all times? For example, when anybody adds 2 + 2 the result should be 4. If any other answer is obtained, the person made a mistake. 2 + 2 does not equal 5 or 3 or anything other than 4. To say otherwise reveals an ignorance of addition, not an alternative but equally valid code of mathematics.

    The rules of mathematics are universally valid. The same rule, for example, 12 + 19 = 31, tells us how to add, whether we are living on Long Island or Timbuktoo, in the late 20th century or the 4th century BC. An Izbekustany peasant who counts 12 goats on this side of the pasture and 19 goats on that side of the pasture, concluding that there are 32 goats in the pasture, makes the same mathematical error as an instructor at Suffolk Community College who counts 12 students on this side of the room, 19 students on that side of the room, concluding that there are 32 students in the room. That the peasant and instructor live several thousand miles apart, are brought up in different cultures, are of different ethnic backgrounds, subscribe to different religious and political traditions, is irrelevant in determining the rights and wrongs of their behavior. The only relevant considerations are whether they are using the correct rule and whether they are applying that rule in the correct way. For example, if either instructor or peasant thinks that 12 + 19 = 32, then one of them does not know arithmetic, and the other does not know how to count.

    The same is true of morality. Just as any proposed rule of addition that is not universally valid cannot be a rule of mathematics, so any proposed rule of conduct that is not universally valid cannot be a rule of morality. For example, cultures that have practiced incest, ritual human sacrifice, matricide, patricide, slavery or female sexual mutilation are immoral since their creeds are not universally valid. Clearly, mutilation, slavery or any of these other modes of conduct are not valid here, certainly not at Suffolk Community College, certainly not on Long Island, New York State, California, the Mid-West, Canada, Mexico, or any part of any country or state that comprises the "civilized" world. Just as 2 + 2 does not = 5, so sexual mutilation does not = morality.

    It may be objected that the argument above makes us; students, teachers, residents of the United States, followers and proponents of Western Civilization, arbiters of right and wrong. We are imposing our values on the rest of the world, or at least on those few countries, such as Libya and the Sudan where slavery and mutilation are still practiced. We are judging people by standards that are not their own; we are committing the "ethnocentric fallacy."

    Perhaps we are. Perhaps we have no right to condemn killing, maiming, brutalizing and destroying when other people do these things. Perhaps our beliefs about right and wrong are limited, provincial, and naive, uninformed. Maybe slavery for others is not so bad after all; perhaps child abuse for other people's children should be encouraged; murder in other societies condoned, rape in foreign countries commended. Perhaps we must rethink our beliefs about right and wrong. Maybe we don't know the difference.

    But if we don't know what we think we know, how can we be certain? How can anyone be sure that aside from mathematics there is no universally valid code of conduct? If we don't know that incest was wrong among the ancients, then we don't know that it is wrong today. Aside from the fact that the Egyptians who practiced incest lived many years ago, the act itself has not changed since then. Nor has rape, enslavement, mutilation or murder. If we cannot condemn the acts of others, then neither can we condemn the same acts when performed by those among us. And if we cannot condemn our own rapists and murderers, then rape and murder, and all the rest, are not just to be condoned for others, but condoned for everyone. So there is a universally valid code of conduct, although it seems very different from what we naively take it to be. The question is, which code is correct, the one that condemns ritual mutilation, or the one that condones it? To answer that question we must turn away from the theory of normative ethical relativism.

    If the theory of Normative Ethical Relativism is flawed then what is the alternative? Can there be an ethics? Can there be a basis for moral rule making? Since Socrates, Philosophers have sought that basis in reason. All humans have reason and if through the use of reason certain principles of ethics, the principle of the good, can be discerned or discovered, then all humans would have contact with the basis for the moral life that all cultures and societies need. Plato believed he had found those principles. After him several others in the West have reached similar conclusions concerning the existence of principles that might have universal application. Unfortunately, they have not all agreed as to what those principles are.

    There are some fundamental distinctions to be made in the approaches taken to thinking about the good. What makes something, an action, good? Is it something in the act or in the intention behind the act? Is it the result of the act or what is in the act itself?

    For example, there is a terrorist with a gun pointed at a group of innocent hostages being held. There is the declaration that he will kill them. Someone nearby has a gun and points it at the terrorist and shoots. The would-be hero misses the target and kills one of the innocent hostages. Now is the act of the would-be hero good or bad? Is it the intention behind the act or the result of the act that makes it good or bad? If something is good, is it good because of what it is or because of what it results in?

    Intrinsic vs Instrumental value

    • Something is said to have intrinsic value if it is good "in and of itself'' i.e., not merely as a means for acquiring something else.
    • Something is said to have instrumental value if it is good because it provides the means for acquiring something else of value.

    Consequentialist vs Non-Consequentialist Theories of Ethics

    There are two broad categories of ethical theories concerning the source of value: consequentialist and non-consequentialist

    • A consequentialist theory of value judges the rightness or wrongness of an action based on the consequences that action has.
      • The most familiar example would be utilitarianism -- "that action is best that produces the greatest good for the greatest number'' (Jeremy Bentham)
      • Teleological theories
    • A non-consequentialist theory of value judges the rightness or wrongness of an action based on properties intrinsic to the action, not on its consequences.
      • Libertarianism--People should be free to do as they like as long as they respect the freedom of others to do the same.
      • Contractarianism--No policy that causes uncompensated harm on anyone is permitted.
    Philosophical Theories Based on Principles and Reason
    Teleological Theories Deontological Theories
    Consequential Non-Consequential
    Egoism Kantian-Categorical Imperative
    Act-Utilitarianism Rawl's Theory of Justice
    Rule Utilitarianism Divine Command Theory

    Situation Ethics

    Natural Law Theory



    Post-Modern Relativism

    Teleological Theories

    In this approach to ethics it is the consequence of the act that is the basis for determining its worth. One of the most basic of consequences is the impact on people and one of the most basic of all values for determining whether something is good or not is the pleasure that it brings to someone. Some think that emotional and physical pleasure is the only basis for determining what is good.

    Theories of the good based on pleasure are termed hedonism. There are two popular theories of the good based on pleasure

    1. Egoism is based on pleasure to one self.
    2. Utilitarianism is based on the pleasure that results for all humans in the world.

    This section will focus on Egoism.

    Ethical Egoism

    1. Common-sense Egoism: is the view that egoism is a vice. It involves putting one’s own concerns over those of others. One’s behavior is egoistic if it involves putting one’s own interests over those of others to an immoderate degree.
    2. Psychological Egoism: is the view that humans are always motivated by self-interest, even in what seem to be acts of altruism. It claims that, when people choose to help others, they do so ultimately because of the personal benefits that they themselves expect to obtain, directly or indirectly, from doing so.
      1. Argument For Psychological Egoism: Human agents (at least on a deep-down level) are all egoists; insofar as our behavior explainable in terms of our beliefs and desires are always aimed at what we believe is our greatest good.
      2. Objection to Psychological Egoism: The psychological egoist confuses egoistic desires with motivation. An agent may act contrary to his desires and what is in his own best interest. People often act in ways that they know are detrimental to their well-being. Moreover, what one most wants may not be in their own self-interest (e.g., giving money to Amnesty International rather than buying a new CD). Even if it were shown that we often act for the sake of our own interest, this is not enough to prove that psychological egoism is true. According to this theory, we must show that people always act to promote their own interests. If we can find only one counterexample to psychological egoism, then it is not true.
    3. Egoism as a Means to the Common Good
      1. Argument for Egoism as a Means to the Common Good: According to the economist, Adam Smith, when entrepreneurs are unimpeded by legal or self-imposed moral constraint to protect the good of others, they are able to promote their own good and, as a result, provide the most efficient means of promoting the good of others. Such a view leads to the doctrine that, if each pursues her own interest as she conceives of it, then the interest of everyone is promoted.
      2. Objection to Egoism as a Means to the Common Good: Apart from positing an "invisible hand" guiding the market processes, the common-good egoist makes the fallacy because if each person promotes her own interest, then everyone else’s interests are thereby promoted. Clearly this is a fallacy, for the interests of different individuals or classes may, and under certain conditions (of which the scarcity of necessities is the most obvious) do conflict. Then the interest of one is the detriment of the other.
    4. Rational Egoism: Rational egoism is concerned with reasonable action.
      1. Strong Rational Egoism: It is always rational to aim at one’s own greatest good, and never rational not to do so.
      2. Weak Rational Egoism: It is always rational to aim at one’s own greatest good, but not necessarily never rational not to do so.
      3. Argument for Rational Egoism: When doing something does not prima facie appear to be in our interest, our doing said act requires that we justify our action by showing that it is in our interest, thereby justifying our action.
      4. Objection to Rational Egoism: Such an approach to justifying actions in our own interest may be abused if we do not have criteria established to determine what the interests of agent’s amount to. If such criteria are established, such actions may be reasonable so long as they do not result in conflicts between agents. In such cases, creative middle ways are called for.
    5. Ethical Egoism: Coupled with ethical rationalism is the doctrine that if a moral requirement or recommendation is to be sound or acceptable, complying with it must be in accordance with reason—rational egoism implies ethical egoism.
      1. Strong Ethical Egoism: It is always right to aim at one’s own greatest good, and never right not to do so.
      2. Weak Ethical Egoism: It is always right to aim at one’s own greatest good, but not necessarily never right not to do so.
      3. Argument for Ethical Egoism: If we accept rational egoism and if we accept ethical rationalism, then we must accept ethical egoism. This is true because if acting in one’s own self-interest is reasonable, then it is a moral requirement that one acts in one’s own self-interest.
      4. Objection to Ethical Egoism: Ethical egoism is incompatible with ethical conflict-regulation. For example, would it be morally wrong for me to kill my grandfather so that he will be unable to change his will and disinherit me? Assuming that my killing him will be in my best interest but detrimental to my grandfather, while refraining from killing him will be to my detriment but in my grandfather’s interest, then if ethical conflict-regulation is sound, there can be a sound moral guideline regulating this conflict (presumably by forbidding this killing). But then ethical egoism cannot be sound, for it precludes the interpersonally authoritative regulation of interpersonal conflicts of interest, since such a regulation implies that conduct contrary to one’s interest is sometimes morally required of one and conduct in one’s best interest is sometimes morally forbidden to one. Thus, ethical egoism is incompatible with ethical conflict-regulation.
    Ethical Egoism vs. Altruistic Egoism

    Rational Egoism is Redundant but Necessary
    Arguments for Ethical Egoism

    1. An altruistic moral theory that demands total self-sacrifice is degrading to the moral agent.


    This is a false dilemma: there are many non-egoistic moral theories that do not demand total self-sacrifice.

    2. Everyone is better off if each pursues his or her self-interest.


    • This probably is not true in practice
    • True egoism isn't concerned with what will make everyone better off.
    Arguments Against Ethical Egoism
    1. Provides no moral basis for solving conflicts between people.
    2. Obligates each person to prevent others from doing the right thing.
    3. Has the same logical basis as racism.
    4. The egoist cannot advise others to be egoists because it works against the first egoist’s interest.
    5. No one person can expect the entire world’s population to act in such a way as to produce the most benefit (pleasure) for that one person.

    So although we all know people who attempt to live their lives as egoists, they are not generally well liked. Being so totally focused on the self is not likely to make someone many friends. Egoists can have friends but most people avoid egoists as they are thought to be untrustworthy. Egoism is not the basis for the moral foundation needed for social life.

    There are other options that we will explore in the next section.

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