The Logical Challenge of Egoism
Ethical egoism is the doctrine that in all cases, people should only do what benefits themselves. The effect on others, regardless of degree, is meaningless to you. In terms of this post, being an egoist means already accepting the premise that you are the only end worth pursuing. In logical terms I’ll call this a person having already accepted the premise “P”.
Morality, as I have argued for before, necessitates that people value others solely for their own sake. Meaning that to me, you have at least some level of value as an end in yourself (benefiting you is valuable for your sake, it is not dependent on how it affects me). Since this means that you cannot only value yourself as an end, it is the negative condition of P, or simply “not P”.
Now here’s the logical problem in trying to establish moral obligations for an ethical egoist (this is the standard case you have to look at if you’re trying to justify morality in general). Since egoists already accept the premise “P”, you have to find a way to argue from ”P” to “not P”. This is logically impossible. It’s exactly like trying to derive “its not raining” from the premise that “it is raining”. It’s just not going to work.
So we’re left with three possible options: morality is impossible to justify, morality does not in fact require “not P”, or egoists do not in fact already have the premise “P”.
(Long side note: there is the possibility of the “should” route. Meaning, an egoist may already have the premise P, but we can say egoists have moral obligations because they should have “not P”. I find this route has one of two undesirable conditions: either morality means nothing, or it asks to do something impossible. Egoists who already accept P have the rational value system of P, meaning that options and choices are considered using a value system that only values yourself. We can either say you have to change your value system, or that you don’t have to change and should just acknowledge the superiority of another value system [ie morality]. However, both options allude to a possibly “objective” third value system that can compare P and not P, which doesn’t exist [and even if it did, it would have the same problem. How do you prefer the third system to P? Do you need a fourth to compare the third and P? And so on until an infinite regress] Since this is impossible, morality then becomes an optional set of rules that people can or cannot follow based on a whim. The concept of “should” is entirely lost.)
I’ll go over each of the possible options to find its plausibility:
1. Morality is impossible to justify.
-This is a potential solution, though obviously we don’t like it. Human societies are obviously better if morality is justified, so we want there to be a justification for morality. Further, none of the commonly brought up reasons for the lack of morality are convincing. It’s obvious that if ethics do exist, humans have to be the ones to make it (ethics are not ingrained in physical laws, as there is no concept of “should” or obligation for physical objects). This makes a lot of people uncomfortable for similar reasons that people still hold onto the concept of an immaterial soul-factual, physical explanations never seem as convincing or “special” as immaterial, vague ones. This results in a lot of people thinking there has to be some objective, outside of humanity ethical rules in order to be justified. But, how would this be justified in any way? Higher powers (why does power allow people to make ethical rules)? Not being human (obviously not enough)? Higher ability to reason (then wouldn’t the reasoning be there to justify morality)?
I’ve gotten into a couple long-winded side notes, but I felt they were necessary. Basically where we’re at: there isn’t a compelling argument for egoism yet, but there is yet to be a convincing one for morality as well.
2. Morality does not require “not P”.
-I find this option easy to think, but it reduces morality to nothing. If I am not required to value others at all, then I will always act in an egoistical way. I will only act along the rules of morality if they happen to coincide with what is in my rational self interest. Meaning, I will only refrain from killing you is if it’s in my best interest not to kill you. However, this means morality says nothing more than “do what you want”. If this were the case, then morality truly means nothing. If this were all morality could be, then we fall back into option #1. In this case, humanity has to structure strict laws that punish harm, so that the “moral” action is the egoistical action in as many cases as possible.
3. Egoists do not, in fact, already have the premise “P”.
-This is the route I am trying to take, which was strongly proposed by Christine Korsgaard in “Sources of Normativity”. I won’t get into how this could work entirely, because I haven’t made a completely convincing case yet. In effect, the argument is ultimately aimed at proving that people, due to their nature, already value others to some degree. Human nature might heavily involve higher cognitive functions, which might be relevant since it seems that the higher cognitive ability animals have, the more “morality” they seem to entail.
The next step in this route (if I can successfully show that people already have the value “not P”) is proving that people should keep the value “not P”. So an egoist could respond: I may already have the value “not P”, but why can’t I just reason that I should choose “P”? The only possible response is that the egoist cannot in fact choose “P”, when they already have the value “not P”.
Some line of though that could support this claim: as I will argue in my next post, we cannot reason our way to values. We only have values, and can use reason to determine what those values entail (this argument has to do with the idea that value is only subjective, and reasoning cannot determine subjective value. I’ll argue more for it in my next post). If this route is true, then an egoist cannot actually reason from “not P” to “P” for the same reasons I cannot reason from “P” to “not P”.
Finally, the egoist might respond: is morality really justified then, if I have no choice whether or not to value P? My response, at least so far, would be that: there comes a point where “I” has to be defined. While I would have to do more work to prove it, I think any concept of “I” is going to necessarily include certain values, which would include “not P”. Therefore, there is no way for “I” to be distinguished from “not P”, “not P” is simply one of the identities that makes up who I am as a person (Korsgaard’s argument is along these lines). It is clear, however, that people have to have some free control over their actions in order for morality to be justified. So, that free will could be in whether or not the individual chooses to listen to “not P” or not, and since the individual in fact does hold “not P”, we can justly hold him/her accountable for acting outside the confines of “not P”, or in effect, outside morality.