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Elements of Moral Philosophy 5: Ethical Egoism


Rachels looks at both Randian and generic ethical egoism. He points out a rather glaring contradiction in the way at least some egoists frame the argument. They claim that we ought to be egoists because looking out for others violates their dignity, and charity is degrading to other humans. But wait a second, they are appealing to our concern for others in order to create the foundation for not being concerned about others. Contradiction.

Three objections are raised:
First, egoism endorses what we all call morally wrong in some cases. Sure, it may act against our interests to murder, most of the time, but ethical egoism would extol murder as a virtue, if an individual can get away with it and benefit from it. That sounds bad.

Next, ethical egoism may be inconsistent, if we assume there is a duty not to prevent other people’s duties. If this is the case, then duties may contradict, like a duty for X to murder Y, because it benefits X, and for Y to prevent X from murdering Y because murder is detrimental to Y. These moral duties conflict. It becomes wrong to murder, and wrong not to murder. Contradiction! But some simply avoid the first concession that it is a duty not to prevent other’s duties.

The line of reasoning Rachels accepts is that egoism is arbitrary. Why do my desires matter more than others’ desires? Others suffer, love, and think like we do. Unless there is a non-arbitrary distinction, then egoists are as bad as racists who discriminate against other groups for no reason.

I’m not sure about this one. To take Rachels’ logic to its full conclusion, I have no reason to value my own life over a stranger’s. After all, we are both humans with thoughts and feelings. In fact, I should value the well-being of two people over my well being, because that’s two people, not one. But that leads to pretty insane repurcussions, like giving away all of one’s money and sacrificing one’s life for all others. Maybe this is consistent, but just impractical. Maybe Rachels would just point out that being moral is difficult.

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