**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!