Monday, March 11, 2013

Rachels and Ethical Egoism

**This is from guest blogger, Daniel W.**

James Rachels describes the ethical theory of selfishness, Ethical Egoism, in his piece titled Ethical Egoism. Rachels opens with a preview of the common sense view of morality, which entails “natural” duties to others simply because they are “people who could be helped or harmed by our actions”. Ethical Egoism rejects this ‘common sense’ assumption about morality. The heart of the ethical egoist doctrine alleges that we ought to behave in a manner which pursues our own self interest—an end which should be sought in all circumstances regardless of the means used to achieve said goal. Rachels notes that given the central egoist tenet, it does not necessarily follow that one ought to avoid actions which promote the interests of others, nor does it claim that one should always do what one desires; on the contrary, one should resist acting upon a desire if the action does not benefit an individual in the long run. One ought to act in self-interest; that is the simple, parsimonious rule. Although Rachels ferries his audience through several arguments which support Ethical Egoism, he concludes his essay with three arguments that refute the cogency of egoism, hence destabilizing its validity as a moral system that we should adopt.

My objective is to discuss the final argument which Rachels believes is the strongest refutation of Ethical Egoism. In the prior arguments (supporting and refuting Ethical Egoism), I feel that Rachels does a wonderful job of presenting the argument and describing the counter arguments which might follow close behind. However, the closing argument is taken to be true without any consideration for a refutation. The argument that Rachels pieces together is as follows:

(1)     Any moral doctrine that assigns greater importance to the interests of one group than to those of another is unacceptably arbitrary  unless there is some difference between the members of the groups that justifies treating them differently.
(2)     Ethical Egoism would have each person assign greater importance to his or her own interests than to the interests of others. But there is no general difference between oneself and others, to which each person can appeal, that justifies this difference in treatment.
(3)     Therefore, Ethical Egoism is unacceptably arbitrary.

While I personally agree with the conclusion, I think it is important to explore potential pitfalls or problems associated with it. I think the staunch supporter of Ethical Egoism might respond to this argument with a rebuttal that targets premise (2). Particularly, the ethical egoist might raise objection to the sub-premise that there is “no general difference between oneself and others to which each person can appeal.” I feel that the objection would sound similar to a principle echoed in Ayn Rand’s argument—namely, that “we must agree that [our] life is of supreme importance” since it is “all one has, and all one is.” By making this assumption, one could allege that each of us does in fact have a difference with which we can isolate ourselves away from “everyone else”—in terms of our own moral standing. The difference would be that each of us is “supremely important” to ourselves. However, this seems almost instantly open to further refutation.
How does one decide what is supremely important? Ayn Rand’s argument seems to suggest that it is justified to intuit our self-supremacy because “[our life] is all we have” and “[our life] is all we are”. So, the claim to self-supremacy is anchored in an intuition and a vaguely defined argument of the following sort:

(1)     Ownership of one thing, A, makes A superior to all other things of the same species which are not owned by a person.
(2)     We have ‘ownership’ of only one life—namely, our own life.
(3)     Therefore, each person’s own life is superior to all other instances of life.

This argument seems valid (granted this is what Rand was attempting to explicate), however it can hardly be called sound. It would be hard to accept premise (i), since we often do not associate our ‘owning something’ as an antecedent for some consequent that the ‘owned thing is superior’ to other things to which the ‘owned thing’ is identical. Suppose we have a dog, and our neighbor walks by and says his dog is superior because he owns it, we would shake our heads and—with clear rational minds—tell him that he is being sentimental and biased. They are both dogs after all. In this way, it seems odd to state that ‘ownership’ of something makes it ontologically better than other copies of that thing; we’d say any perceived superiority is a product of our bias towards what we own and rooted in our emotional sentiment for things of which we have direct experience.

Isn’t it fair to say that life is identical to all other life? It involves the same underlying necessary components: ability to interact (or have experience) with environment, composed of cellular material, ability to procreate, etc. Though the subjective experience of life might differ (among humans, or even outside of the Homo sapien species), we still say things are alive—thus, having life—in the same manner of speaking. Since there are certain fundamental similarities which we use to assess life, every life is identical in these fundamental ways, and thus premise (i) cannot be true, since it would be a absurd to assert that something is better than another identical thing. This echoes Rachels’ argument that there is still no unambiguous criterion available to differentiate life at its core essence.

In response, the ethical egoist might put more emphasis on the claim that “our life is all we are, and thus it is superior to other lives.” This seems to be an argument which argues that things which we experience are more important than those experienced by other people. The ethical egoist might argue that our subjective experience trumps all, and yet this seems an impossible claim to make, given our subjective position from which we have to make such an evaluation. The following argument seems appropriate to prove this point:

(1)     We can make an accurate evaluative claim, if and only if we have knowledge of two things being evaluated.
(2)     We only have knowledge of our own subjective experience (i.e., one thing).
(3)     To say something is “superior” to something is an evaluative claim.
(4)     Thus, we cannot accurately say that our subjective experience is “superior” to another person’s subjective experience.

If this argument is sound (which it may very well not be), then the ethical egoist seems to have less justification for not supporting the original premise (2). While the ethical egoist is claiming self-supremacy from their own subjective experience—in an irrational manner—the only way to make an evaluative claim is from some type of veil of objectivity. If we remove ourselves to a position of “god-like” omniscience and objectively view people in the world, wouldn’t it be impossible to differentiate humans from one another and demarcate them into unambiguous groups for individualized moral judgment? Maybe this is too hypothetical, but I like it, and I think this is what Rachels is after at the end of the day. While Rachels used the moral system of racism to exemplify his argument against Ethical Egoism, perhaps these supportive arguments could buttress his position against further egoist rebuttals that he does not entertain in his essay. Do people think that these help serve Rachels’ final argument? Specifically, are there other ways to respond to the ethical egoist who tries to argue against premise (2)? Are there other points of contention that I may be missing in that final argument? This is shaping up to be the general subject matter for my second paper, and I’d be curious to hear all ideas and refutations!


Larry D said...

I just have a couple questions about the last argument you make here about evaluation. First, how much knowledge is need to make an evaluative claim of another thing, and does this matter? Perhaps we can make evaluative claims of those close to us of whom we do have information, at least as it is apparent to us through perception and what they tell us of their subjective experience. Perhaps the egoist could argue then that we can in fact make these evaluative claims, and then the question becomes at what point can you no longer make a claim about another, do you need complete knowledge of their life? Half complete knowledge? etc. The second question is whether the egoist is really saying our subjective experience is superior; the fact that I am Me is an objective fact, not a subjective one (I would think). Can I claim that I am in fact objectively superior due to my me-ness, or would you still argue that this is still just subjectivism?

Not necessarily refutations, but im curious as to how you would answer these.

Danny Witt said...


Great points raised! These were some things I was thinking about after I published the earlier blog post. Specifically, I saw you raising some questions about premise (1): we can make an accurate evaluative claim, if and only if we have knowledge of two things being evaluated. You raise a good question regarding how much knowledge we require in order to make evaluative claims. We do certainly need knowledge about a thing in order to somehow enumerate or compare it with another thing. The question you now raise is completely relevant and should be investigated. I—as someone with limited background in formal epistemology and who is just as confused as the next philosophy student about where the boundaries separating knowledge from belief lie—would suggest that using the word knowledge in this sense could be used to describe level of experience. Perhaps I can rephrase my argument by not even using the word “knowledge” (and thus bypass discussion of the tenuous parameter for knowledge). Instead, let’s say “we can make an accurate evaluate claim, if and only if we have a reasonable level of experience concerning the two things being evaluated.” However, I imagine the same questions would remain: how much experience must one have to evaluate something; how much is reasonable to get the job done?

When we evaluate rocks for their color, all we need is a glimpse (a momentary sense perception) and we can be said to have sufficient experience of each object to make a comparison of their colors. However, a life (described by our internalized experience) is obviously not a material entity. We can’t use the same standard to say we have sufficient experience for comparison between lives (obviously).

So, I don’t know how we could get such a clear-cut, accurate view of another’s subjective experience—such a vast, complex, and personal thing after all. I would say it is this ‘life experience’ that we would need to have our own experience of in order for our discrimination between the two lives to be non-arbitrary. Other more descriptive, superficial qualities of another human’s experience do not seem to get us out of the non-arbitrary realm of hypothetically distinguishing ‘life features.’ It doesn’t seem like we could have enough experience of another person’s essential ‘life experience’ to make evaluative claims...

Danny Witt said...

The egoist might argue that we have sufficient ‘experience’ of another’s subjective experience (life/existence/conscience/emotions/reasoning), such that it is reasonable to make evaluations between my life and that other life. This would clash with my premise (2): We only have (sufficient experience) of our own subjective experience (i.e., one thing). However, I would still maintain that anyone making this counter-argument is describing experience of another life that seems to be second-hand experience, and not the essential, primary experience being had by the other person. What we know of another life—and we can come to know a lot and empathize with many conditions and understand motivations for action, etc.—is based on superficial qualities that we observe of another life. Whether those are observations concerning material or immaterial features of another’s life, we can never completely experience the essence of another life. From another angle, there is a pretty plain biochemical account of life that makes it plain to see that no one has an identical neurochemical experience (which silently and mysteriously achieves a higher order subjective experience). Without the fine-grained, personal understanding of another life experience, how can we possibly compare our life to another with the intent of assigning superiority?

For a straight answer to your early question, I would argue that only an individual’s subjective experience is sufficient experience for making a reasonable, non-arbitrary, accurate assessment of that life, and that naturally leads to the conclusion that, since one only has their own experience, we can’t make comparisons between the subjective life experiences. These are just a couple of things I would say in response to the first question you raised. Just to be clear, I don’t think this conclusion says anything about not having value in one’s own life—my contestation arrives when superiority is assigned between subjective experiences.

I find your second question to be a great one as well. My response would be to say that I=me is a tautology and true. So I guess we could say it is objectively true, in a logical sense. However, I still find it hard to see why an argument naturally arrives at “I am superior” based on me having “me-ness”. It seems this would play out in an argument such as the following: if there is me-ness in a life, then that life is superior. To unpack “me-ness” are you referring to our own subjective experience? If so, it seems that one is saying “it’s my subjective experience, so it is superior.” Is that right? I think that would return us to the earlier argument I just discussed regarding our ability to award some subjectively-conceived idea of ‘superiority’ to one subjective experience over another subjective experience (of another flavor). I’m not sure if that answers your question, or if you agree, but that would be my line of thought and response.