Why Should We Believe that Egoism is Self-Effacing?

Collective action dilemmas have always presented a problem for theories of rationality, but they seem to present a much greater problem for ethical egoism. The existence of collective action dilemmas shows that the actions which self-interest theories of rationality claim are justified lead to disastrous consequences when generalized, but the problem is worse for ethical egoism because ethical egoism claims that those same actions are not merely rationally justified but morally justified. Thus, ethical egoism seems to catch agents in a quandary. Either they can do the morally correct action and drive to work, making the situation marginally worse for everyone, or they can take a morally wrong course by taking the bus. Agents no longer even have the option to weaken the dilemma by weighting their moral reasons more heavily than their self-interested reasons because moral reasoning has been collapsed into self-interested reasoning. It seems, then, that ethical egoism gives rise to the most full-blooded acceptance of collective action dilemmas. In Parfit’s terminology, ethical egoism has revealed itself as directly collectively self-defeating, and thus has cast serious doubt on its claim to be an adequate moral theory.

In order to answer the objection, the ethical egoist must show that a good egoist is not never self-denying. To be never self-denying is to always take the action which produces the greatest benefit. In Reasons and Persons, Parfit identifies one case in which being never self-denying leads to a very bad outcome. Suppose Bill is driving in the desert without his wallet when his car breaks down. Another motorist, George, comes along and is willing to drive Bill home, but only if Bill agrees to pay him upon arrival. Bill knows that, once he is home, there will be no self-interested reason to pay George because Bill needs no additional services from him, and because Bill is never self-denying, Bill knows that he will then refuse to pay. With no contract and no witnesses, George will not be able to bring suit or otherwise penalize Bill for not paying. Unfortunately for Bill, he cannot lie convincingly, so, knowing that he will refuse to pay, he is unable to convince George that he will pay, with the result that George leaves him in the desert. Kavka’s toxin puzzle seems to be another case in which being never self-denying makes someone worse off.  In the puzzle, an eccentric billionaire offers to pay you a million dollars tomorrow morning for intending tonight to drink a toxin which will cause serious discomfort tomorrow afternoon. One who is never self-denying, however, knows that, once he has the money, there will be no reason for him to drink the toxin tomorrow, and thus he cannot intend to drink it today.

One intuitive way to get the money in the toxin puzzle is for you to trick yourself about the nature of the case. Perhaps you convince yourself that you will not deserve the money unless you actually drink the toxin so that getting the money and not drinking the poison becomes the second-best option instead of the best, or perhaps you deceive yourself into believing that you actually like drinking the toxin in order to get the money. If you can represent to yourself that the best path is a path in which you drink the toxin, then you can get the money. If it is the case that you cannot honestly intend to drink the toxin while fully understanding the deal, then it becomes the case that deceiving yourself actually is the best path. The mechanism used here is similar to the preference shifting offered as a response to the problem of infringement of autonomy. By shifting what you sincerely want to do, new options become open to you in which what you want to do aligns with what will make you well-off.

Whenever a problem seems unavoidable, then the ethical egoist has cause to shift his preferences so that the problem becomes less serious. Suppose that Elizabeth has a fulfilling job in the city which is the best job available to her, but which requires her to commute a long distance each day. All of the commuters have reason to drive to work, because driving is faster than taking the bus, but because everybody is driving, the commute is longer for everybody than if everybody took the bus. It seems that the order of possible states of affairs, from best to worst for Elizabeth, is Elizabeth driving while everyone else takes the bus, everyone including Elizabeth taking the bus, everyone including Elizabeth driving, and everyone else driving while Elizabeth takes the bus. The only available states of affairs, however, are the third and fourth worst ones because Elizabeth cannot control the actions of the other commuters, and thus Elizabeth is highly displeased with her commute because the better possibilities are not available options. If Elizabeth shifts her preferences so that an available option becomes the best possible option, however, then the gap between the best possible and the best available will no longer exist to trouble her with how much better things could be. Thus, it seems that Elizabeth will be better off if she shifts her preferences so that a longer commute is a good thing. Perhaps she might come to enjoy the time which she has to herself in the car, in which case Elizabeth driving while everybody else drives would be the best option because it would afford her the most time in the car. Alternatively, she might become an avowed environmentalist so that only options in which she rides the bus would be appealing to her, although there would still be a better possible option, namely everybody riding the bus.

While preference shifting seems to provide some sort of a response in the commuting collective action dilemma, it does not seem to be a very convincing response. Preference shifting doesn’t truly solve the problem but merely claims that it is not really a problem. In fact, it seems to lead to the conclusion that no intractable problem is a problem because once it is clear that it is not solvable, the agents involved shift their preferences so that whatever was initially taken to be a problem becomes the best outcome. On one hand, there may be a grain of truth in the claim that the best path to happiness is aligning your desires and expectations with what will in fact result, but, on the other hand, the implications seem highly problematic in the case of the communal fishing pond.

In the fishing pond case, where all the villagers have agreed to take only a certain number of fish, there is a difference between the states of affairs which are best in the short-term and those that are best in the long term. Thus, in the short-term, the ranking of possibilities from best to worst in terms of value for an individual, Ronald, is Ronald cheating on the communal agreement while nobody else does, everyone including Ronald cheating, nobody cheating, and everybody but Ronald cheating. In the long-term, however, nobody cheating becomes better than everybody cheating because if everybody cheats, the resource is seriously diminished. In the short-term, there is little incentive to preference shift because the best available option, everybody cheating, is almost as good as only Ronald cheating because everybody cheating does not immediately reduce the available resources by very much. When nobody ever has a short-term interest in preference shifting, however, the long-term result comes about and suddenly there are no fish in the pond. It then seems to be absurd to argue that Ronald shifting his preferences to hate fishing or hate having the extra resources leads to a satisfactory result. It might even be the case that that was the only food supply and now Ronald will starve. It would be ridiculous to insist that Ronald, having shifted his preferences to hating eating, is now well off on account of his imminent death. It cannot be satisfactory to insist that people may always shift their preferences to reimagine collective action dilemmas as the best possible outcome, although it may be the case that once Ronald is starving to death, it is good for him to shift his preferences to align with the inevitable outcome.

When preference shifting intersects with the problem of seeking happiness, however, a more compelling response emerges. It is widely agreed that nothing is so anathema to happiness as trying to be happy, and that fact in itself has been leveled as an objection against ethical egoism. In her paper “Moral Saints,” Susan Wolf argues that the utilitarian moral saint must always consider whether his current action is best promoting total welfare, and that doing so prevents him from ever really enjoying anything. His fixation on welfare value prevents his life from contributing much at all in the way of welfare to the global total. It seems likely that a similar problem exists for the never self-denying ethical egoist. He must always consider whether his actions are best promoting his welfare, which consideration prevents him from ever living in the moment. In Wolf’s words, he has one thought too many, and this additional thought prevents him from living as good a life as he might be able to do otherwise. If following ethical egoism leads to a worse life than following some other moral theory, then it seems that ethical egoism may be failing in its own terms.

If ethical egoism tells people to do that which will make their lives go best and trying to have a good life makes one’s life go worse, then ethical egoism tells people not to try to make their lives go best. Instead, once somebody has accepted the truth of ethical egoism, then the morally correct action for him to take is to forget that he is an ethical egoist. So long as it is before his mind that he is an egoist, he will be motivated to always take the action which most promotes his welfare, causing him to be never self-denying, but being never self-denying involves having one thought too many and being unable to secure certain benefits in cases such as the desert breakdown or the toxin puzzle. Instead, the egoist ought to efface egoism from his mind in favor of some other moral theory, the belief in which will allow him to live the best possible life. In practice that theory is probably a widely accepted and not overly demanding theory such as common-sense morality, although likely with some personal modifications. Thus, it might be reasonable for a compulsive liar to adopt a moral theory which does not hold that lying is morally wrong so that he does not have to condemn himself morally on a daily basis. While it may seem that ethical egoism has just disappeared at this point, it remains the case that ethical egoism would still be the epistemically justified moral theory, even if some other moral theory were the pragmatically justified theory.


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