#2: A claim about the objective consequences of our actions
What does it mean to be selfish?
If we are selfish, do we only do things that are in our genuine self-interest?
What about the chain smoker? Is this person acting out of genuine self-interest?
In fact, the smoker may be acting selfishly (doing what he wants without regard to others) but not self-interestedly (doing what will ultimately benefit him).
If we are selfish, do we only do things are we believe are in our self-interest?
What about those who believe that sometimes they act altruistically?
Does anyone truly believe Mother Theresa was completely selfish?
Think of the actions of parents. Don’t parents sometimes act for the sake of their children, even when it is against their narrow self-interest to do so?
There are two ways in which the psychological egoist's claim may be interpreted:
#1: We act selfishly
If the psychological egoist is saying that we act selfishly, then how do we explain apparently altruistic people like Mother Theresa? Two possible answers:
People are unconsciously selfish. But what do we mean by unconscious intentions? This devolves into a second claim.
People are unconsciously self-interested. Without realizing it, our actions are self-interested. This leads to interpretation #2
#2: We act in our self-interest
If the psychological egoist is saying that we act in our self-interest, then how do we explain the fact that people sometimes do self-destructive things?
We could draw a distinction between genuine and apparent self-interest, but:
It is obviously false that people in fact always act in their own genuine self-interest (the smoker)
If people are said to act in their apparent self-interest, this then becomes a claim about intentions (apparent to whom?), and this is then subject to all the objections about the claim that we act selfishly.
Is psychological egoism an unfalsifiable hypothesis?
Karl Popper first formulated this notion to distinguish science from non-science
Apparently very powerful
Actually not empirical: no counter-instances
Motives and Consequences:
Psychological egoists, as we have seen in the preceding analysis, often confuse motives and consequences
The fact that we may get something back as a result of a particular action does not entail that we did the action in order to get something back.
We may experience great rewards in love, but that doesn’t mean we do it solely or even primarily in order to obtain those rewards.
Ambiguity #1: Do we act exclusively out of selfishness?
Exclusive vs. Non-exclusive psychological egoism.
If we act selfishly all the time, how could we prove this?
If we act selfishly only part of the time, this is true but uninteresting
What counts as counter-evidence?
Ambiguity #2: Do we act to maximize self-interest or simply to increase it?
Maximizing vs. Non-maximizing psychological egoism.
Maximizing psychological egoism seems interesting but false
Non-maximizing psychological egoism may be true but uninteresting.
Ambiguity #3: Are we causally determined to act this way or do we choose to do so?
If this is a causal claim, it is presumably about consequences. Yet this causal claim (that in fact people always act [solely] in ways that promote their self-interest) seems empirically false.
If this is not a causal claim, then it implies that people freely choose to act this way. But how do we explain the counter-evidence of people’s claims about their own intentions and motivations?
Ambiguity #4: Is there really such a sharp division between self-interest and the interests of others, especially the interests of those we love?
Psychological egoism is founded on an Enlightenment view of the autonomy self.
In reality, this strict separation is misleading, as we will now see
Psychological egoism rests on ambiguities and false dichotomies, as we have seen.
We need to re-conceptualize this area to understand what is true and what is false in psychological egoism.
Rather than two opposing positions, we should view egoism and altruism as existing along a spectrum. We should also consider the distinction between intentions and consequences so as not to fall into a false dichotomy between altruism and egoism. Do we act out of selfish motives or in order to achieve selfish ends. Sometimes concern for others results in our own happiness or fulfillment of our own interests. The two should not be set in necessary opposition.
Psychological egoism gains its apparent plausibility by trading on ambiguities (selfishness vs. self-interest) and false dichotomies (self-interest vs. altruism).
As we have seen, we can accept psychological egoism as a partial truth and recognize that there is more to human behavior than selfishness
Ethical Egoism claims:
“Love, we are repeatedly taught, consists of self-sacrifice. Love based on self-interest, we are admonished, is cheap and sordid. True love, we are told, is altruistic. But is it?
“Genuine love is the exact opposite. It is the most selfish experience possible, in the true sense of the term: it benefits your life in a way that involves no sacrifice of others to yourself nor of yourself to others
Selfishness is extolled as a virtue
Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness
May appeal to psychological egoism as a foundation
Often very compelling for high school students
Personal Ethical Egoism
“I am going to act only in my own interest, and everyone else can do whatever they want.”
Individual Ethical Egoism
“Everyone should act in my own interest.”
Universal Ethical Egoism
“Each individual should act in his or her own self interest.”
There are at least three principal arguments in support of ethical egoism:
Altruism is demeaning.
Acting selfishly creates a better world.
It doesn’t result in such a different world after all.
Friedrich Nietzsche and other philosophers argued that altruism was demeaning because it meant that an individual was saying that some other person was more important than that individual. Nietzsche saw this as denigrating oneself, putting oneself down by valuing oneself less than the other. This, the heart of altruism, is demeaning in Nietzsche’s eyes.
Ethical egoists sometimes maintain that if each person took care of himself/herself, the overall effect would be to make the world a better place for everyone.
Epistemological: Each person is best suited to know his or her own best interests.
Moral: Helping others makes them dependent, which ultimately harms them.
Reply: this justification ultimately appeals to utilitarian principles, not the principles of ethical egoism
This argument presupposes the people in fact already act selfishly (i.e, psychological egoism) and are just pretending to be altruistic.
If psychological egoism is true, then we should admit its truth and get rid of our hypocrisy.
Reply: it may not make a big difference in a world of independent adults, but in a world with children and people at risk or in need, they would be put in further jeopardy
Cannot be consistently universalized
But see Kalin: This works in sports.
Presupposes a world of strangers indifferent to one another.
Difficult to imagine love or even friendship from the egoist’s standpoint.
Seems to be morally insensitive
Some philosophers have argued that ethical egoism is, at best, appropriate to living in a world of strangers that you do not care about
Can ethical egoists be good friends?
If friendship involves (among other things) being concerned about other people for their own sake, then this seems something beyond the reach of the egoist.
Ethical egoists can help their friends if they believe there is a long-term payoff for doing so.
Truths in Ethical Egoism
Sometimes self-interest masquerades as altruism
Ethics should not deny the importance of self-interest
Self-love is a virtue, but it is not the only virtue Ethical egoism mistakes a part of the picture for the whole picture
Ideally, we seek a society in which self-interest and regard for others converge—the green zone.
Egoism at the expense of others and altruism at the expense of self-interest both create worlds in which goodness and self-regard are mutually exclusive
Ch 5 – The Ethics of Consequences – Utilitarianism Peter Singer is the most widely known utilitarian philosopher today. Advocate for the poor and elimination of world hunger. Strong supporter of animal welfare because the suffering of animals is as real as our own suffering. Vegetarianism becomes a moral imperative in his view. Lessens animal suffering but also avoids contributing to climate change. He also deals with issues at the beginning and end of life and the medical dilemmas about saving severely damaged newborns or those at the end of life who choose to die. The morally right thing, he claims, is to first and foremost reduce suffering and increase pleasure or happiness.
Basic Insights of Utilitarianism:
The purpose of morality is to make the world a better place.
Morality is about producing good consequences, not having good intentions
We should do whatever will bring the most benefit (i.e., intrinsic value) to all of humanity.
The utilitarian has a very simple answer to the question of why morality exists at all:
The purpose of morality is to guide people’s actions in such a way as to produce a better world.
Consequently, the emphasis in utilitarianism is on consequences, not intentions.
The fundamental imperative of utilitarianism is:
Always act in the way that will produce the greatest overall amount of good in the world.
We often speak of “utilitarian” solutions in a disparaging tone, but in fact utilitarianism is a demanding moral position that often asks us to put aside self-interest for the sake of the whole.
Utilitarianism is a morally demanding position for two reasons:
It always asks us to do the most, to maximize utility, not to do the minimum.
It asks us to set aside personal interest
The Dream of Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism offers us a powerful vision of the moral life, one that promises to reduce or eliminate moral disagreement.
If we can agree that the purpose of morality is to make the world a better place; and
If we can scientifically assess various possible courses of action to determine which will have the greatest positive effect on the world; then
We can provide a scientific answer to the question of what we ought to do.
History of utilitarian ideas:
Many things have instrumental value, that is, they have value as means to an end.
However, there must be some things which are not merely instrumental, but have value in themselves. This is what we call intrinsic value.
What has intrinsic value? Four principal candidates:
John Stuart Mill
G. E. Moore
Bentham believed that we should try to increase the overall amount of pleasure in the world.
Bentham believed that we should try to increase the overall amount of pleasure in the world.
Came to be known as “the pig’s philosophy”
Ignores higher values
Could justify living on a pleasure machine
Believed that happiness, not pleasure, should be the standard of utility.
A higher standard, more specific to humans
About realization of goals
More difficult to measure
Competing conceptions of happiness
G. E. Moore suggested that we should strive to maximize ideal values such as freedom, knowledge, justice, and beauty.
The world may not be a better place with more pleasure in it, but it certainly will be a better place with more freedom, more knowledge, more justice, and more beauty.
Moore’s candidates for intrinsic good remain difficult to quantify
Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel Prize winning Stanford economist, argued that what has intrinsic value is preference satisfaction.
The advantage of Arrow’s approach is that, in effect, it lets people choose for themselves what has intrinsic value. It simply defines intrinsic value as whatever satisfies an agent’s preferences. It is elegant and pluralistic.
The Utilitarian Calculus
Math and ethics finally merge: all consequences must be measured and weighed.
How many people will be affected, negatively (dolors) as well as positively (hedons)
How intensely they will be affected
Similar calculations for all available alternatives
Choose the action that produces the greatest overall amount of utility (hedons minus dolors)
Utilitarians would have to calculate:
Increased nutrition for x number of children
Increased performance, greater long-range chances of success
Incidental benefits to contractors, etc.
Cost to each taxpayer
Contrast with other programs that could have been funded and with lower taxes (no program)
Multiply each factor by
Number of individuals affected
Intensity of effects
Pleasure and preference satisfaction are easier to quantify than happiness or ideals
Two distinct issues:
Can everything be quantified?
Some would maintain that some of the most important things in life (love, family, etc.) cannot easily be quantified, while other things (productivity, material goods) may get emphasized precisely because they are quantifiable.
The danger: if it can’t be counted, it doesn’t count.
Are quantified goods necessarily commensurable?
Are a fine dinner and a good night’s sleep commensurable? Can one be traded or substituted for the other?
Utilitarianism doesn’t always have a cold and calculating face—we perform utilitarian calculations in everyday life.
Looks at the consequences of each individual act and calculate utility each time the act is performed.
Looks at the consequences of having everyone follow a particular rule and calculates the overall utility of accepting or rejecting the rule
Imagine the following scenario. A prominent and much-loved leader has been rushed to the hospital, grievously wounded by an assassin’s bullet. He needs a heart and lung transplant immediately to survive. No suitable donors are available, but there is a homeless person in the emergency room who is being kept alive on a respirator, who probably has only a few days to live, and who is a perfect donor. Without the transplant, the leader will die; the homeless person will die in a few days anyway. Security at the hospital is very well controlled. The transplant team could hasten the death of the homeless person and carry out the transplant without the public ever knowing that they killed the homeless person for his organs. What should they do?
For rule utilitarians, this is an easy choice. No one could approve a general rule that lets hospitals kill patients for their organs when they are going to die anyway. The consequences of adopting such a general rule would be highly negative and would certainly undermine public trust in the medical establishment.
For act utilitarians, the situation is more complex. If secrecy were guaranteed, the overall consequences might be such that in this particular instance greater utility is produced by hastening the death of the homeless person and using his organs for the transplant.
Rule utilitarians claim:
In particular cases, act utilitarianism can justify disobeying important moral rules and violating individual rights.
Act utilitarianism also takes too much time to calculate in each and every case.
Act utilitarians respond:
Following a rule in a particular case when the overall utility demands that we violate the rule is just rule-worship. If the consequences demand it, we should violate the rule.
Furthermore, act utilitarians can follow rules-of-thumb (accumulated wisdom based on consequences in the past) most of the time and engage in individual calculation only when there is some pressing reason for doing so.
Who does the calculating?
Who is included?
Utilitarianism suggests that we are responsible for all the consequences of our choices.
The problem is that sometimes we can foresee consequences of other people’s actions that are taken in response to our own acts. Are we responsible for those actions, even though we don’t choose them or approve of them?
Discuss Bernard Williams’ example of Jim in the village
Imagine a terrorist situation where the terrorists say that they will kill their hostages if we do not meet their demands. We refuse to meet their demands. Are we responsible for what happens to the hostages?
Imagine someone like Sadam Hussein putting children in targets likely to be bombed in order to deter bombing by the United States. If we bomb our original targets, are we responsible if those children are killed by our bombing?
Utilitarianism often demands that we put aside self-interest. Sometimes this means putting aside our own moral convictions.
Discuss Bernard Williams on the chemist example.
Develop a variation on Jim in the village, substituting a mercenary soldier and then Martin Luther King, Jr. for Jim. Does this substitution make a difference?
Integrity may involve certain identity-conferring commitments, such that the violation of those commitments entails a violation of who we are at our core
Utilitarianism is concerned almost exclusively about consequences, not intentions.
There is a version of utilitarianism called “motive utilitarianism,” developed by Robert Adams, that attempts to correct this.
Intentions may matter is morally assessing an agent, even if they don’t matter in terms of guiding action
By concentrating exclusively on consequences, utilitarianism makes the moral worth of our actions a matter of luck. We must await the final consequences before we find out if our action was good or bad.
This seems to make the moral life a matter of chance, which runs counter to our basic moral intuitions.
We can imagine actions with good intentions that have unforeseeable and unintended bad consequences
We can also imagine actions with bad intentions that have unforeseeable and unintended good conseqeunces.
Who Does the Calculating?
Historically, this was an issue for the British in India. The British felt they wanted to do what was best for India, but that they were the ones to judge what that was.
See Ragavan Iyer, Utilitarianism and All That
Typically, the count differs depending on who does the counting
In Vietnam, Americans could never understand how much independence.
Who is Included?
When we consider the issue of consequences, we must ask who is included within that circle.
Those in our own group (group egoism)
Those in our own country (nationalism)
Those who share our skin color (racism)
All human beings (humanism or speciesism?)
All sentient beings
Classical utilitarianism has often claimed that we should acknowledge the pain and suffering of animals and not restrict the calculus just to human beings.
Utilitarianism is most appropriate for policy decisions, as long as a strong notion of fundamental human rights guarantees that it will not violate rights of small minorities.