Morality and the Human Condition, #7–Psychological and Moral Egoism (vs. The Pro-Nudist Philanthropist & Singer’s Famine Relief Argument).
By Robert Hanna
Table of Contents
III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism
IV. Morality and Religion
IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory
IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?
IV.3 Religion and Morality
V. Three Classical Moral Theories
V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics
V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition
V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics
V.2 Millian Utilitarianism
V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism
V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles
V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas
V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics
V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section
VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism
VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About the Meaning of Life
VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About the Meaning of Life
VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?
VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation
VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism
VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd
VII.3 Camus and Affirmation
VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity
VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity
VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?
VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom
VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers
VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics
VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity
IX. The Nature of Death
IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”
IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death
IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death
X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality
X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality
X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing
X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality
X.4 Human Life Without Immortality
This installment contains section III.4.
But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.
III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism
The thesis of egoism, in general, says that all our actual psychological motivations and all our moral principles are fundamentally self-centered and based on self-interest.
But under this general rubric there are are two importantly distinct types of egoism:
(i) psychological egoism, and
(ii) moral egoism.
Psychological egoism is a factual thesis, which is to say that it’s about what actually is, and not either about what must be (as a matter of logical or metaphysical necessity) or about what ought to be (as a matter of morality), which says that every human desire, intention, choice, and action is fundamentally motivated by self-interest.
Directly opposed to psychological egoism is the factual thesis of psychological altruism, which says that some human desires, intentions, choices, and/or actions are not fundamentally motivated by self-interest, but instead are fundamentally motivated by concern for the interests of others.
Moral egoism, as its name of course indicates, by sharp contrast to psychological egoism, is a moral thesis, not a factual thesis, hence it’s about what ought to be, not about what actually is, which says that everyone ought always to pursue their own self-interest exclusively.
Directly opposed to moral egoism is the moral thesis of moral altruism, which says that everyone ought at least sometimes to desire, intend, choose, and/or act in a way that’s not fundamentally self-interested, but instead fundamentally motivated by the interests of others.
Now before we go on to a critical examination of either psychological egoism or moral egoism with an eye to determining their truth or falsity, we’ll need to make some some important conceptual distinctions.
First, self-interest is not the same as selfishness.
Selfishness is manifested by choices or actions or attitudes undertaken for my own sake exclusively, usually with a short-term payoff, that significantly or even wantonly ignore the interests of others.
It’s possible to act for self-interested reasons without being selfish: e.g., brushing my teeth, eating healthy food, and exercising, etc., is self-interested but not selfish.
It’s also possible to act for selfish reasons without being self-interested: e.g., stealing expensive electronic gear during a natural disaster, riot, or wartime, when you might easily be arrested or even shot for looting, would be selfish, but not self-interested.
Second, self-interest is not the same as hedonism, or acting for the sake of pleasure alone.
It’s possible to be hedonistic without being self-interested: e.g., smoking — especially vaping marijuana — when you know it’s bad for you, is hedonistic, but not in your self-interest.
Conversely, it’s possible to act for self-interested reasons without being hedonistic: e.g., brushing my teeth and flossing twice a day, going regularly to the dentist, going to the doctor for regular check-ups, etc., are all self-interested, but not hedonistic.
Third, self-interest is not the same as having no concern for others.
It’s possible to be self-interested and still have concern for others: e.g., doing good things for one’s own immediate or extended family is often acting in one’s own self-interest and also acting from concern for others.
It’s also possible to have no concern for others and not be self-interested: e.g., in a society that has Good Samaritan laws (like France and other European countries), wantonly ignoring a small child who’s drowning in a shallow pond when there’s also a CCTV surveillance camera nearby watching you, would not be self-interested.
Fourth, establishing the truth (if it is indeed true) of psychological egoism is not the same as establishing the truth (if it is indeed true) of moral egoism, nor is establishing the truth of moral egoism the same as establishing the truth of psychological egoism.
For this would be to infer directly from an actual fact to a categorically normative claim, that is, to infer directly from an is to an ought.
Indeed, this inference is generally fallacious, and also known as the naturalistic fallacy.
E.g., let’s suppose it’s an actual fact that every human being craves sweet things: even then, it wouldn’t follow that we ought to eat (lots of) sweet things, for eating (lots of) sweet things might well be morally neutral or even impermissible.
Conversely, suppose it’s morally obligatory to be self-interested: then if you ever act in an altruistic way, you’re thereby violating moral principles.
At times, Nietzsche at least appears to be asserting something like this.
But the philosophical badass and (in effect) neo-Nietzschean 20th century McCarthyite, neoliberal, and Libertarian novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand — never much one for philosophical, moral, or political caution or modesty — actually did assert it:
If a man accepts the ethics of altruism… his first concern is not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it…. Parasites, moochers, looters, brutes and thugs can be of no value to a human being — nor can he gain any benefit from living in a society geared to their needs, demands, and protections, a society that treats him as a sacrificial animal and penalizes him for his virtues in order to reward them for their vices, which means: a society based on the ethics of altruism.[i]
Check out that brooch!
But in any case, let’s suppose that you actually are motivated to desire, intend, choose, and/or act altruistically, at least sometimes.
Then if psychological egoism were true, that couldn’t happen in this actual world, and if moral egoism were true, then you’d be evil.
And those both seem bonkers — i.e., British slang for “absurd” and/or “crazy.”
So here are three $64,000.00 questions:
(i) is psychological egoism true?,
(ii) is moral egoism true?, or, on the contrary,
(iii) are psychological altruism and/or moral altruism true?
Here’s an argument for the truth of psychological altruism and thus also for the falsity of psychological egoism.
Suppose that a pro-nudist, philanthropist multi-billionaire approached you on the street in a big city on a warm sunny day and offered, in a completely legitimate and legally-attested way, to give 1 billion USD to legitimate charities if (and only if) you walked completely naked (except for shoes, sunglasses, and sunscreen) through the middle of the city, on condition that you weren’t allowed to tell anyone who saw you why you were doing this, although the pro-nudist philanthropist would later explain it all to the authorities: would you do it?
My prediction is that many people would do this, including quite a few people with funny-looking naked bodies who would otherwise find it extremely embarrassing to do it (like me), and who certainly would not enjoy being arrested for public indecency, etc.
Suppose now, that, my prediction is true: let’s call this case The Pro-Nudist Philanthropist.
The Pro-Nudist Philanthropist proves that psychological egoism is false, and that psychological altruism is true.
Here are two more follow-up comments on that argument, before moving on.
First, notice that in order to refute psychological egoism, all that has to be shown is that there is at least one really possible or actual case in which someone rationally chooses to do something X even though their self-interest, on the whole, would otherwise necessitate that they not do X or even that they do something else that’s not-X.
Again, it doesn’t have to be true that they have no self-interest in doing X: it’s just that their self-interest alone wouldn’t allow them to do X.
So your desiring, intending, choosing, and/or acting altruistically is perfectly consistent with doing something that satisfies your self-interest: it’s just that you’re not doing X only for the sake of your self-interest.
Indeed, had your self-interest demanded that you not do X, yet you still did X for the sake of concern for the interests of others — as would be true in the case of The Pro-Nudist Philanthropist — then we can be absolutely sure that you did it altruistically.
Second, the truth of psychological egoism is not established just by virtue of the fact that every one of my experiences, including every one of my choices and actions, necessarily is one of my experiences.
That’s just the subjective character of all human experience.
Even wholly altruistic desires, intentions, choices, and acts have a subjective character.
Hence, the necessary fact of the subjective character of all human experience does not entail the truth of psychological egoism.
Therefore, you can justifiably retort to anyone who argues for psychological egoism by repeating these depressingly shopworn phrases, “Yes!, you’re acting in a way that seems altruistic, but since you enjoy doing it, or at the very least, since you’re motivated to do it, then it’s egoistic!,” by saying, as Johnny Carson repeatedly did to Ed McMahon:
Wrong again!, barnacle-breath.
For that argument is nothing but a “common, all-too-common” fallacy.
Human subjectivity and egoism are different things: everything that is egoistic has subjective character, but not everything that has subjective character is egoistic.
So much for psychological egoism, then, and three cheers! for psychological altruism.
Now here’s an argument for moral altruism that I’m borrowing from a very famous 1972 essay by the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.”
In that essay, Singer argues that it’s morally obligatory for comparatively well-off people like us always to do whatever we can to save the lives of innocent people who are in great danger, and in particular, that it’s morally obligatory for comparatively well-off people like us always to do whatever we can to prevent the suffering and deaths of innocent people from famine anywhere in the world.
More specifically, here’s my rational reconstruction of Singer’s very famous famine relief argument.
(1) Suffering and death from famine are very bad.
(2) Here’s a candidate moral principle for adoption as a duty:
The Super-Strong Saving Others Principle: If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening to other people, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral value (e.g., our own life), then we ought, morally, always to do it.
(3) Suppose that you do not agree with The Super-Strong Saving Others Principle. Then consider instead the following weaker moral principle:
The Pretty Strong Saving Others Principle: If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening to other people, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant (far less of comparable moral value), then we ought, morally, always to do it.
(4) Both of the moral principles stated in (2) and (3) hold even if I am not the closest one to the endangered person, and even if I am not the only one who can save that person. In other words, neither the factors of proximity and distance, nor the factor of uniquely effective aid, has any moral relevance.
(5) Consider now the following imaginary case, The Pond:
If I’m walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, and as it happens I’m the closest one to the child and also I’m the only who can save the child, then I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my nice clothes muddy (and possibly ruining them), but this is morally insignificant, whereas by sharp contrast the death of the child would be a very bad thing, hence I’m morally obligated to wade in and save the child.
(6) Our commonsense moral intuitions about The Pond confirm both The Super-Strong Saving Others Principle and The Pretty Strong Saving Others Principle.
(7) The case of famine relief is precisely morally analogous to the shallow pond case in The Pond, and further confirms both The Super-Strong Saving Others Principle and The Pretty Strong Saving Others Principle.
(8) This in turn entails that we accept the following moral principle as our duty:
The Pretty Strong Famine Relief Principle: It’s morally obligatory for relatively well-off people like us always to do whatever we can, short of sacrificing anything morally significant (far less of comparable moral value), to prevent the suffering and deaths of innocent people from famine anywhere in the world.
I think that everyone who carefully considers Singer’s argument will agree that steps (1) and (5) are both true: suffering and death from famine are very bad, and I ought to save the child from drowning in the shallow pond.
So that leaves steps (2), (3), (4), (6), (7), and (8) as possible targets for criticism.
I’ll come back to criticism of those steps a little later, but first I want us also to consider the following pair of cases, due to another philosopher named “Peter,” namely, Peter Unger, and formulated in his words:[ii]
The Vintage Sedan. Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you’ve restored to mint condition. In particular, you’re pleased by the auto’s fine leather seating. One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly travelled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who’s wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring yourself that his wound’s confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year exams, which explains his indigent status since, he’s knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound so as to stop the flow. So, there’s no urgent danger of losing his life, you’re informed, but there’s great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. “How did the wound occur?” you ask. An avid bird watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you’d aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg.
The Envelope. In your mailbox, there’s something from (the US Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. But, you throw the material in your trash basket, including the convenient return envelope provided, you send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have had you sent in the requested $100.[iii]
Almost everyone who rationally considers these cases regards your action in Vintage Sedan as obviously morally impermissible and also your action in Envelope as obviously morally permissible.
And this set of verdicts holds even despite the highly disturbing and cognitively dissonant fact that not only is the loss of a leg in Vintage Sedan far less serious than the loss of thirty children’s lives in Envelope, but also the cost of repairing your vintage sedan’s upholstery ($5000) in Vintage Sedan is far greater than than the cost of donating to UNICEF ($100) in Envelope.
What Unger argues is that our initial moral judgments in Vintage Sedan and Envelope are deeply erroneous and need to be revised.
This in turn is what Unger calls a Liberationist solution to The Famine Relief Problem of Saving Lives, as opposed to a Preservationist solution that explains and justifies our initial moral judgments.
In fact, he says, the injured leg emergency situation in Vintage Sedan is precisely morally analogous to the drowning emergency situation in The Pond; and so too the famine relief emergency situation in Envelope is precisely morally analogous to the drowning emergency situation in The Pond.
Therefore, according to Unger, relatively well-off people like us ought always to give (e.g.) $100 to UNICEF (or OXFAM, CARE, etc.) whenever we can, and arguably we should also always be prepared to sacrifice a leg (whether our own, or someone else’s) or to kill some other innocent person (as per The Trolley Problem) in order to save many faraway starving children whenever we can.
And this of course is in perfect conformity with Singer’s famine relief argument.
I do completely agree with Unger and Singer that by means of their arguments, if they’re sound, then not only is The Pretty Strong Saving Others Principle validated, but also another principle I’ll call
The Surprisingly Strong Saving Others Principle: In certain types of cases, if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening to many other people, even when we will thereby have to sacrifice something morally significant (e.g., our own or someone else’s leg, or killing one innocent person as per The Trolley Problem), although without sacrificing anything of comparable moral value (e.g., our own life), then we ought, morally, always to do it.
Indeed, in another slightly less famous essay, Singer also provides an argument for The Surprisingly Strong Saving Others Principle by means of the story of Bob (no, seriously: I’m not making this up), the foreign sports car enthusiast, who must choose between, on the one hand, saving an innocent child from being run over by a train, and on the other, saving his beloved Bugatti which is parked on the tracks, in which he has invested most of his life savings:
When Bob first grasped the dilemma that faced him as he stood by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be placed in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.[iv]
What The Surprisingly Strong Saving Others Principle means in relation to The Pond and all other Pond-type cases, like Bob’s Bugatti, is this:
If I’m walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, and as it happens I’m the closest one to the child and also I’m the only who can save the child, then I ought to wade in and pull the child out. Even if I were wearing, e.g., a fabulously rare and valuable gold-plated Rolex watch, in which I had invested most of my life savings, but which would be completely ruined by my saving the drowning child, so that I thereby lost most of my life-savings and became an indigent person, then I’d still be morally obligated to save that child in that actual context. Tough luck for Bob.
I agree with The Pond, Bob’s Bugatti, and with what I’ll call Bob’s Gold-Plated Rolex Watch.
But now it’s time for some criticism of Singer’s and Unger’s arguments.
It seems to me that the two Peters, Singer and Unger, have both over-generalized from The Pond, Bob’s Bugatti, and structurally similar cases like Bob’s Gold-Plated Rolex Watch.
Special features of all such cases include:
(1) proximity (both the life-saver near the pond and Bob are the closest people capable of giving life-saving aid), and
(2) uniquely effective aid (both the life-saver near the pond and Bob are uniquely capable of saving the child — no one else can do it).
Nevertheless, very, very few cases in which we’re called upon to act altruistically, are also cases in which the features of proximity and uniquely effective aid both hold.
In fact, massively most cases in which we’re called upon to act altruistically, are cases in which we’re neither the closest people capable of giving life-saving aid nor uniquely capable of giving life-saving aid.
Therefore, it seems to me that what holds for cases in which proximity and uniquely effective aid both do obtain, like The Pond, Bob’s Bugatti, and Bob’s Gold-Plated Rolex Watch, will not necessarily hold for cases in which either proximity or uniquely effective aid, or both, do not obtain, like most cases in which we’re called upon to act altruistically.
In other words, by virtue of their over-generalizing from cases like The Pond and Bob’s Bugatti, I think that Singer’s famine relief argument fails at steps (3), (4), (6), (7), and (8), and also that Unger’s argument fails for the same reason.
But at the same time, I also think it’s highly plausible to argue that it’s a moral scandal for comparatively well-off people like never to do anything at all to prevent the suffering and death of innocent people even when they’re far away and I’m not the only one who can save them.
Otherwise, we’re both regarding them and treating them like they’re mere things, i.e., like dirt, offal, or trash, worth even less than the cost of my clothing, or the cost of my dry cleaning, not to mention my Bugatti or my gold-plated Rolex watch.
And that’s morally impermissible: we should always regard and treat other persons like persons, not mere things.
So it seems to me that the following weaker moral principle is arguably true:
Bob’s Moderate Saving Others Principle: If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening to other people, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, then we ought, morally, sometimes to do it, even if we are neither the closest ones to the endangered people nor the only ones who can save them.
This principle in turn would directly entail, by specification, the following principle:
Bob’s Moderate Famine Relief Principle: It is morally obligatory for comparatively well-off people like us sometimes to do whatever we can, short of sacrificing anything morally significant, to prevent the suffering and deaths of innocent people from famine anywhere in the world, even if we are neither the closest ones to the endangered people nor the only ones who can save them.
Now let’s suppose that The Pond, Bob’s Bugatti, Bob’s Gold-Plated Rolex Watch, Bob’s Moderate Saving Others Principle,and also Bob’s Moderate Famine Relief Principle are all true: then, clearly and distinctly, moral altruism is true and moral egoism is false.
Where are we now?
As we’ve seen, the three classical challenges to the standard conception of morality all fail, thereby vindicating the standard conception to that important extent.
So until further notice — or at the very least, until the end of this short course — we’re rationally justified in holding onto the standard conception.
[i] A. Rand, as quoted in Rachels and Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy pp. 73–74. See also J. Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009).
[ii] P. Unger, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996). See also R. Hanna, “Must We Be Good Samaritans? On Unger’s Living High and Letting Die,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 28 (1998): 453–470.
[iii] Unger, Living High and Letting Die, pp. 24–25.
[iv] P. Singer, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” in J. Rachels and S. Rachels, (eds.), The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy (4th edn., New York: McGraw Hill, 2007), pp. 138–144, at p. 144.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 386
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