Self-Defeating and Self-Effacing-A Problem for Ethical Egoism?

In the first section of Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit suggests that theories of self interest are inherently indirectly self-defeating and probably self-effacing. Ethical egoism, which I hope can serve to answer the non-identity problem without invoking total utility, is a theory of self interest, and thus it is pivotal to ask whether the fact that it is self-defeating and effacing is a problem.

A theory is indirectly self-defeating if the person who embraces the theory achieves worse results than the person who does not. It seems possible, if not plausible, that embracing ethical egoism causes the person who has done so to enjoy a life which is worse for him. As is commonly maintained, those who seek happiness the most assiduously are the least likely to find it: they have one belief too many, and, whenever they enjoy something, that enjoyment is undermined by the constant need to consider whether that thing is promoting their welfare to the greatest extent. Nevertheless, that is not necessarily a problem for ethical egoism. If it is the case that a belief in ethical egoism causes things to go worse for the person who believes in it, then ethical egoism would encourage the person who believed it to abandon it in favor of some other theory, or to cause himself to have dispositions such that he would not always act according to the strictures of ethical egoism. Ethical egoism would then seem to be self-effacing.

A theory is self-effacing if it encourages people to adopt some other, contradictory theory. While it seems likely that ethical egoism is self-effacing, it may be the case that a theory encourages people who find it to be true to convince themselves otherwise while yet being true. Truth and expediency are not bound together, as anyone who has ever felt the need to lie about something knows. It would be easier to give an answer contrary to the truth if you actually believed that things had happened in a different way, but that in no way undermines the fact that they happened in the way that they did.  Thus, ethical egoism may remain true without being pragmatically desirable. To be self-effacing is only to be pragmatically undesirable, and thus even if ethical egoism is pragmatically desirable it may yet be true.



Parfit, Derek. 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: OUP Oxford, 1984. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed May 31, 2018).

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