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The Problem with Egoism 19 October 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Philosophy.

If you haven’t checked out the New York Times’ philosophy blog “The Stone”  you ought to. It offers an easy introduction to most of the popular topics you missed if you never took PHIL 101. I bring it up now because if you ever subscribed to Ayn Rand’s “objectivism” or an economist’s theory of “rational self-interest” today’s post on altruism by Judith Lichtenberg ought to give you pause. She lays out the problem here:

The logical lure of egoism is different: the view seems impossible to disprove. No matter how altruistic a person appears to be, it’s possible to conceive of her motive in egoistic terms. On this way of looking at it, the guilt Mr. Autrey [who sacrificed his life to pull someone out of the way of a subway train] would have suffered had he ignored the man on the tracks made risking his life worth the gamble. The doctor who gives up a comfortable life to care for AIDS patients in a remote place does what she wants to do, and therefore gets satisfaction from what only appears to be self-sacrifice. So, it seems, altruism is simply self-interest of a subtle kind.

The impossibility of disproving egoism may sound like a virtue of the theory, but, as philosophers of science know, it’s really a fatal drawback. A theory that purports to tell us something about the world, as egoism does, should be falsifiable. Not false, of course, but capable of being tested and thus proved false. If every state of affairs is compatible with egoism, then egoism doesn’t tell us anything distinctive about how things are.

That’s a good rebuttal to the egoist’s argument, but it stops a bit short of explaining why egoism fails as the basis for ethical theory. In response to the above, the egoist might say, “I agree. People always act selfishly. I was simply explaining how the world works. We cannot act altruistically.” Maybe he’s correct. Maybe the world does work that way, but even if that’s the case, then we find ourselves in need of a way to distinguish between good selfish actions and bad selfish actions. Or worse, between apparently altruistic selfish actions and apparently selfish selfish actions. Nonsense of course.

Selfishness remains the common denominator, so it drops out, and we still find ourselves looking for a theory that allows us to determine right and wrong.  Certainly a gulf exists between the selfish entrepreneur who sees pleasure in helping stamp out malaria in Africa and the selfish executive who cheats his shareholds. How does knowing that each one acts in his own self interest help us here? It doesn’t. Even if you believe egoism holds some descriptive power, it offers no path toward what we ought to do, so it’s a hollow observation indeed.


1. Mere - 20 October 2010

So what if it makes the egoist feel good. It certainly helps others and feeling good is a by-product of that.

magicdufflepud - 20 October 2010

Well, yes, but the egoist makes the point that altruism is impossible because all we’re doing is satisfying our desires, not sacrificing our pleasure for the good of others. He says that no matter what we do, we’re always being greedy, thinking about ourselves first. But notice that if we have no choice but to think of ourselves first (it’s what we’re always doing, says the egoist), then we can’t use words like greedy to describe the behavior. It’s innate. And thus, egoism doesn’t offer any help in determining what’s greedy and what’s altruistic.

2. Joe - 16 January 2011

It is true that many seemingly selfless actions (such as giving to charity etc.) are merely a byproduct of attempting to satisfy our own feelings of guilt etc.

But there are also times when one may do something they really dread doing, but do so because of a commitment they have made. Isnt that sacrificing pleasure for the benefit of others? Could that still be considered selfish?

3. magicdufflepud - 17 January 2011

Joe, I think we agree. The egoist would say that it is selfish, though, because the person honoring his commitment could think that by breaking his vow, he’d be seen as untrustworthy–and that would hurt his prospects for satisfaction in the future. Be sure to remember that not all acts requiring a sacrifice of pleasure are altruistic, however (and that not all altruistic acts require sacrifice of pleasure).

If I do you a favor by driving you to the airport while missing my favorite show, then I’m sacrificing pleasure, sure, but the egoist will probably say I’m doing it because I know I can hold it over your head in the future. “Remember that time when I…?” It’s still a selfish motivation.

Regardless, that doesn’t change the point that egoism’s “you’re always selfish” principle holds no explanatory power whatsoever.

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