Egoism isn’t the end of us all

A core assumption of normative ethics is that people can act freely, and that one can only be obligated to do something if it is within their power to do so. E.g. one is only responsible for running over a pedestrian if it was within one’s power to swerve out of the way in time. Otherwise, it is considered a mere accident. This idea is conveniently packaged in the maxim, ought implies can.

Psychological egoism is a theory that claims that all people, regardless of their will, always act to the benefit of their self-interest. E.g. When you attend a meeting it isn’t motivated by the good of the other attendees, but rather for your own interest in avoiding social criticism, not getting fired and so on. So an egoist will claim that all your actions are, at the end of the day, driven by dopamine chemical release in your brain (that which makes you literally feel good), and never for any sort of moral good out there in the world.

This notion of everyone being slaves to dopamine calls free will into question. If everyone will always act in a certain way independently of what they think is best, then there is no point arguing about what action is best. Any theory moral philosophy produces will not be actable upon by the very people it intends to serve because they simply have no choice in the matter. A utilitarian can argue all they want — people will do no other than act egoistically, even if they agree with all her points.

In this article I’d like to discuss ways to overcome this problem. Not so much metaphysically (arguing that true free will exists is an uphill battle), but more from a moral standpoint. Is it possible for a society of pure egoists to succeed morally? That is, to be better than the state of nature (where lives are notoriously nasty, brutish, and short).

Picture credit: Min kyung

Rejecting necessity of free will

The first way to overcome the problem is by rejecting the maxim of responsibility, i.e. ought does not imply can. This can successfully be done by employing the tenets of ethical idealism, which holds that one ought to strive towards the ideal state of being even if physically unachievable. Take for example an actor performing a dramatic play. A good actor will attempt to evoke sorrow in every one of his audience members, even if there are some cold-hearted or disinterested people among them. Even if realistically the actor will only succeed in evoking emotion in 80% of his audience, he should still aim for 100% to maximise results. Aiming for the realistic 80% means putting in less effort and will result in perhaps only 60% feeling emotion. The idealist argues that these hypothetical imperatives (if I want to be a good actor then I should try to evoke emotion in all audience members) can be extended to moral imperatives. E.g. The South African politician should attempt to alleviate all corruption from his department even if realistically he will only be able to reduce it by 20%. It is by this striving for the ideal that the maximum moral results are attained. So, in this example the politician has a moral obligation to alleviate all corruption even if he cannot. Applying this philosophy to the psychological egoism problem, we can see how it still makes sense to oblige a person to act in a certain way even if they realistically will not always be able to.

After all, we know that arguments can change opinion and since opinion determines one’s interest, it ultimately drives motivation for the egoist. Therefore, the idealist will say that since your interest drives your actions, you have a moral responsibility to shape your interest such that your actions are more moral. E.g. if you believe in not tipping, it is your responsibility to change your belief first and foremost. After altering it, it will be in your interest to tip (because you will be following your belief system).

One could object by highlighting that a person can only change their interest if it is already in their interest to do so (since shaping your interest is an action too). E.g. most bad-tippers have no interest in changing their view. I would respond by saying that it is in this case the responsibility of those more open-minded to convince traditionalists to adopt their view. An essential part of human nature is sociability, which means that people care about their place in a society. When placing a traditionalist in a progressive society, they are bound to adapt and change their ways. So, convincing people of progressive interest is possible and by idealism should be strived towards. E.g. you need not convince a bad-tipper that they should tip. You only need to convince them to think about their beliefs and change it where appropriate. Because if you’re willing to change your beliefs, you at least have the ability to improve, even if your beliefs are horrible.

Therefore, the moral philosopher is justified in prescribing normative ethics even if there are some that are will initially reject it and others that will accept it, but initially not act it.

Reframing free will

For sake of steel-manning, let us assume that ought implies can and that psychological egoism is a problem for ethics because people cannot but act in self-interest. I think one can still overcome the challenge by arguing that psychological egoism is the same as free will. Psychological egoism says that when a person makes a decision, she will choose the option which is in her interest, i.e. she will do what she wants. So, if you always do what you want (act in self-interest), in what sense are you not free? One might say that a truly free agent could in principle act in a manner that is completely against their interest in every way. But why would one do that? Certainly, a free agent is free because she can act in her interest. The “restriction” of egoism is not really a restriction, because it does not inhibit your ability to do human things. In fact, acting completely in your disinterest seems closer to slavery than egoism does. So being able to act against your interest will not add to your freedom but subtract from it.

The metaphysicist might say that determinism throws a spanner in the works of free will, and that is an argument with merit, but as far as moral philosophy is concerned, psychological egoism itself poses no threat. Acting in self-interest is necessarily part of making a decision and so, that consideration intrinsically has no effect on moral agency. All psychological egoism does is partially explain how people decide, which should be as uninteresting to a moral philosopher as the chemical makeup of manure is to a dung beetle.

Computer Science and Philosophy double-major student. Interested in getting to grips with the problems of the universe.