Egoism and Moral Skepticism
Psychological egoism is the view that human beings always act from a sin- gle motive: self-love. Ethical egoism is the moral theory that says we ought to act only from self-love. Rachels tries to expose the logical and moral weaknesses of both theories. For example, he challenges the view often proffered by defenders of psychological egoism: ‘S?’e are selfish because we always do what we want to do. One person wAnts to visit and cheer up a lonely elderly neighbor; another wants to rob and terrorize the neighbor. Both do what they want; both are selfish. Rachels points out that what makes an act selfish is its object, not that you want to do it. If the object of most of your actions is to please yourself, then you are selfish; if you often want to please others, you are kind. If you want to harm them, you are malicious. Rachels also argues that both psychological and ethical egoisms rest upon a distorted view of human nature. Most of us are sympathetic and care about the well-being of others. The reason we do not burn down a department store is not because it might not be in our long-range best interest to do so, but because “people might be burned to death.”
Our ordinary thinking about morality is full of assumptions that we almost never question. We assume, for example, that we have an obligation to consider the wel- fare of other people when we decide what actions to perform or what rules to obey; we think that we must refrain from acting in ways harmful to others, and that we must respect their rights and interests as well as our own. ‘Sfe also assume that peo- ple are in fact capable of being motivated by such considerations, that is, that peo- ple are not wholly selfish and that they do sometimes act in the interests of others.
Both of these assumptions have come under attack by moral skeptics, as long ago as by Glaucon in Book tr of Plato’s Republic. Glaucon recalls the legend of Gyges, a shepherd who was said to have found a magic ring in a fissure opened by an earthquake. The ring would make its wearer invisible and thus would enable him to go anywhere and do anything undetected. Gyges used the power of the ring to gain entry to the Royal Palace where he seduced the Queen, murdered the King, and subsequently seized the throne. Now Glaucon asks us to determine that there are two such rings, one given to a man of virtue and one given to a rogue. The rogue, of course, will use his ring unscrupulously and do anything necessary to increase his own wealth and power. He will recognize no moral constraints on his conduct, and, since the cloak of invisibility will protect him from discovery, he can do anything he pleases without fear of reprisal. So there will be no end to the mis- chief he will do. But how will the so-called virtuous man behave? Glaucon suggests that he will behave no better than the rogue:
No one, it is commonly believed, would have such iron strength of mind as to stand fast in doing right or keep his hands off other men’s goods, when he could go to the market-place and fearlessly help himself to anything he wanted, enter houses and sleep with any woman he chose, set prisoners free and kill men at his pleasure, and in a word go about among men with the powers of a god. He would behave no bener than the other; both would take the same co.r.s..1
Moreover, why shouldn’t he? Once he is freed from the fear of reprisal, why shouldn’t a man simply do what he pleases, or what he thinks is best for himself? \fhat reason is there for him to continue being “moral” when it is clearly not to his own advantage to do so?
These skeptical views suggested by Glaucon have come to be known as psycho- Iogical egoism and ethical egoism respectively. Psychological egoism is the view that all men are selfish in everything that they do, that is, that the only motive from which anyone ever acts is self-interest. On this view, even when men are acting in ways apparently calculated to benefit others, they are actually motivated by the belief that acting in this way is to their own advantage, and if they did not believe this, they would not be doing that action. Ethical egoism is, by contrast, a norma- tive view about how men ought to act. It is the view that, regardless of how men do in fact behave, they have no obligation to do anything except what is in their own interests. According to the ethical egoist, a person is always justified in doing what- ever is in his own interest, regardless of the effect on others
Clearly, if either of these views is correct, then “the moral institution of life” (to use Butler’s well-turned phrase) is very different than what we normally think. The majoriry of mankind is grossly deceived about what is, or ought to be, the case, where morals are concerned.
Psychological egoism seems to fly in the face of the facts. ‘We are tempted to say, “Of course people act unselfishly all the time. For example, Smith gives up a trip to the country, which he would have enjoyed very much, in order to stay behind and help a friend with his studies, which is a miserable way to pass the time. This is a perfectly clear case of unselfish behavior, and if the psychological egoist thinks that such cases do not occur, then he is just mistaken.” Given such obvious instances of “unselfish behavior,” what reply can the egoist make? There are two general arguments by which he might try to show that all actions, including those such as the one just outlined, are in fact motivated by self-interest. Let us examine these in turn:
A. The first argument goes as foilows. If we describe one person’s action as self- ish, and another person’s action as unselfish, we are overlooking the crucial fact that in both cases, assuming that the action is done voluntarily, the agent is merely doing what be most wants to do.If Smith stays behind to help his friend, that only shows that he wanted to help his friend more than he wanted to go to the country. And why should he be praised for his “unselfishness” when he is only doing what he wants to do? He cannot be said to be acting unselfishly.
This argument is so bad that it would not deserve to be taken seriously except for the fact that so many otherwise intelligent people have been taken in by it. First, the argument rests on the premise that people never voluntarily do anything except what they want to do. But this is patently false; there are at least two classes of actions that are exceptions to this generalization. One is the set of actions which we may not want to do, but which we do anyway as a means to an end which we want to achieve; for example, going to the dentist in order to stop a toothache, or going to work every day in order to be able to draw our pay at the end of the month. These cases may be regarded as consistent with the spirit of the egoist argument, however, since the ends mentioned are wanted by the agent. But the other set of actions are those which we do, not because we want to, nor even because there is an end which we want to achieve, but because we feel ourselves under an obligation to do them. For example, someone may do something because he has promised to do it, and thus feels obligated, even though he does not want to do it. It is some- times suggested that in such cases we do the action, because, after all, we want to keep our promisesl so, even here, we are doing what we want. However, this dodge will not work: If I have promised to do something, and if I do not want to do it, then it is simply false to say that I want to keep my promise. In such cases we feel a conflict precisely because we do not want to do what we feel obligated to do. It is reasonable to think that Smith’s action falls roughly into this second category: He might stay behind, not because he wants to, but because he feels that his fpiend needs help.
But suppose we were to concede, for the sake of the argument, that all volun- tary action is motivated by the agent’s wants, or at least that Smith is so motivated. Even if these were granted, it would not follow that Smith is acting selfishly or from self-interest. For if Smith wants to do something that will help his friend, even when it means forgoing his own enjoyments, that is precisely what makes him unselfish. ‘What
else could unselfishness be, if not wanting to help others? Another way to put the same point is to say that it is the object of a want that determines whether it is selfish or not. The mere fact that I am acting on my wants does not mean that I am acting selfishly; that depends on what it is that I want. If I want only my own good, and care nothing for others, then I am selfish; but if I also want other people to be well-off and happy, and if I act on that desire, then my action is not selfish. So much for this argument.
B. The second argument for psychological egoism is this. Since so-cilled unself- ish actions always produce a sense of self-satisfaction in the agentrz and since this sense of satisfaction is a pleasant state of consciousness, it follows that the point of the action is really to achieve a pleasant state of consciousness, rather than bring about any good for others. Therefore, the action is “unselfish” only at a superficiJ level of analysis. Smith will feel much better with himself for having stayed to help his friend-if he had gone to the country, he would have felt terrible about it-and that is the real point of the action. According to a well-known story, this argument was once expressed by Abraham Lincoln:
Mr. Lincoln once remarked to a fellow-passenger on an old-time mud-coach that all men were prompted by selfishness in doing good. His fellow-passenger was antagoniz- ing this position when they were passing over a corduroy bridge that spanned a slough. As they crossed this bridge they espied an old razor-backed sow on the bank making a terrible noise because her pigs had got into the slough and were in danger of drowning