The problem of Collective Self-Defeat

One of the most persistent problems for ethical egoism is that it is directly collectively self-defeating. Parfit shows that prisoner’s dilemmas and the so-called tragedy of the commons represent cases in which if everyone follows ethical egoism, then the result is worse for each. Parfit suggests, however, that, even then, the self-interest theory does not fail in its own terms because given the actions of the other people, the selfish act was in one sense the most effective. While the self-interest theory, which is predominantly a theory of rationality, does not fail in its own terms, its moral corollary, ethical egoism, would be seriously endangered by collective self-defeat given that it is usually taken as a serious flaw for a moral theory to have that result.

Parfit, however, earlier suggests that the self-interest theory is self-effacing. The person who believes the self-interest theory is led to deny it to himself in order to adopt a different set of beliefs and dispositions which will help his life to go as well as possible. Once ethical egoism has effaced itself in the minds of its devotees, the problem of collective self-defeat may go away. It seems likely that the set of beliefs and dispositions most inclined to lead to a valuable life for the person who lives it may be the same set of beliefs and dispositions commonly regarded as comprising common-sense morality. In that case the ethical egoist would merely need to show how those beliefs could be the result of an initial epistemic belief that ethical egoism is the correct moral theory.

An additional advantage of such an approach is that it provides an error theory which shields the ethical egoist from the inevitable objection that if ethical egoism is the correct moral theory, why do so few people seem to acknowledge it as such? The ethical egoist may then reply that the acknowledgement of ethical egoism has led those people to efface it in service of their own greatest good in accord with the main principle of the theory.

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