Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Critique of Rachels' Argument Against Ethical Egoism

**This is from guest blogger, William P.**

In his essay “Ethical Egoism,” James Rachels even-handedly considers several arguments for and against Ethical Egoism (the moral position that one only ought to do what is in one’s best interests) before concluding that only his own argument against Ethical Egoism is fully sound. His argument hinges on the idea that “there is no general difference between oneself and others, to which each person can appeal, that justifies [a] difference in treatment.” I’m not sure if this is tenable. There is an obvious difference between the epistemic access which one has with regard to oneself and that which one has with regard to others: specifically, one knows (or is at least much more likely to know) one’s own interests better than others’ (which Rachels actually mentions earlier, in a different context) and one has a different experience of one’s own actions or the impact of one’s own actions depending on if they are in one’s interest or in another’s interest. In other words, one can viscerally feel the benefits of actions that are in one’s interest, whereas one can only infer about the impact of one’s actions that are in others’ interest, which Rachels seems to recognize when he writes about relatively affluent people being “effectively insulated” from the suffering and death of starving children in poor countries. Under these considerations the pertinent question is not “Does hunger affect them any less?” as Rachels asks, but “Can I feel their hunger like I feel my own hunger?” or “Would my own benefit from my money be more greatly appreciated by me than their benefit would be?” All of which is to say that there do seem to be general differences that could justify differences in treatment. Rachels seems to suppose that such a difference in epistemic access is negligible in extreme cases when well-known universal human needs are at stake, which may actually be the case; however, in other, less extreme cases these differences create ambiguities that make it difficult to recognize the correct course of action. None of this is meant to say that I’m in favor of Ethical Egoism; I just see possible issues in Rachels’ counterargument.

Since Rachels also considers Randian Ethical Egoism specifically (which he describes as mischaracterizing altruism as something that necessarily puts the interests of others above one’s own), and given the current political climate of this country (where some equate Randian ethics with a moral mandate for a market without government regulation and an end to government subsidies), I wondered what Rachels’ argument would have to say about living in (and perhaps being complicit in) a capitalist country that necessarily creates and perpetuates inequality, which he might call “unacceptably arbitrary.” Would such an economic system necessarily be immoral in his view, rather than just amoral, as it’s often described? I’m really not entirely sure if Rachels’ moral doctrine of equality conflicts with economic doctrines – I want to hear what other people think.

1 comment:

Claire Stein said...


I think Rachels would absolutely deem an economic system where inequalities are created and perpetuated as immoral based on his "unacceptable arbitrary" argument against Rand's view. If the economic system was intentionally treating some groups of people (like bankers, politicians and the like) as different than any other agents (as ours does, I think) then our economic system seems to fail his argument. In order to defend our economic system against Rachels argument, one would have to show that there is some legitimate justification as to why we should treat these groups differently than others. To defend our economic system, one could argue (as some do!) that we should treat bankers and the like differently because their success is more vital to the success of the society as a whole. So if it were in the interest of the whole society that these groups are given greater importance than everyone else, it may be justified. I do not, however, buy this argument.