Sunday, December 13, 2009

Egoism by Kurt Baier (Part 2)

This is the second of my posts on Kurt Baier's essay on Egoism in The Blackwell Companion to Ethics. 

In Part 1, I looked at psychological egoism and Adam Smith's argument for egoism. It was argued that psychological egoism is not true: humans do not always act so as to further their own interests. It was further argued that Smith's egoism does not truly embrace the ethical virtues of egoism.

In this part, I consider the arguments in favour of a true ethical egoism, i.e. a theory that argues that egoism is an ethical ideal.

From Rational Egoism to Ethical Egoism
Rational Egoism is the position that one always has a reason to act so as to further one's interests. This is different from psychological egoism. Rational egoists are not claiming that we always do act in our interests; rather, they are saying it is always reasonable to act in one's own interests.

This seems plausible. After all, whenever we are told to do something that is contrary to our interests (e.g. giving money to charity or paying taxation), we often need to convinced that it is ultimately in our interest to do so (e.g. "imagine if you were in the same position" or "taxes pay for public services that we all use").

Ethical Rationalism is the position that moral requirements must play-up to our rationality. In other words, that a moral theory must give us reasons-for-action.

If we combine rational egoism with ethical rationalism we get Ethical Egoism. This is the position that a moral theory that advocates egoism is, if not the only available theory, certainly an acceptable moral theory.

The Problem of Ethical Conflict-Regulation
The main difficulty facing ethical egoism is a competing intuition we have concerning the nature of morality. This is the "conflict-regulation" intuition. According to this intuition, one of the distinguishing marks of morality is that it gives us reasons for action that are independent of our own interests.

So consider the following question: is it morally wrong for me to kill my grandfather in order to protect my inheritance rights (I may be afraid that he has plans to change his will)? According to the conflict regulation intuition, it is morally wrong because we should protect both my interests and the interests of my grandfather.

There is, it seems, a direct clash between ethical egoism and ethical conflict-regulation.

After noting the clash between the two visions of morality, Baier's essay runs into several dead-ends. He simply notes different strategies for resolving the clash.

A classic "resolution" is that of Henry Sidgwick. I put resolution in scare-quotes because Sidgwick actually reaches the unsatisfactory conclusion that both egoism and conflict-regulation are acceptable bases for morality.

Perhaps a better resolution is out there?

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