IV. Ethical Egoism

The rough idea behind ethical egoism is that the right thing to do is to look out for your own self-interest.  We are morally required only to make ourselves as happy as possible.  We have no moral obligations to others.  Ayn Rand seems to endorse this idea in the following passages:

"By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man -- every man -- is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose" (Pojman, p. 74).

"Accept the fact that the achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness -- not pain or mindless self-indulgence -- is the proof of your moral integrity ... " (Pojman, 77).

Let's make these rough thoughts more clear; let's formulate a criterion of moral rightness based on Rand's ideas.

      A. Formulating Ethical Egoism (EEh)

- Alternative: the alternatives that some agent has at some time are the actions that are open to the agent at that time; they are her "options"; two actions are alternatives to one another when an agent can do either one of them, but not both of them.
- Consequences: the consequences of a given act are the things that would happen "as a result" of the act, if it were performed. Note that some subsequent event is a consequence of an act whether it is near in space and time or far away; whether it is something that the agent of the act could reasonably anticipate or not; whether it involves the agent of the act or some distant stranger.

Our version of egoism is going to be a form of consequentialism.  A normative theory is a form of consequentialism insofar as it implies that facts about the consequences determine the normative status of acts.

(This leaves open just what it is about the consequences that determine an act's normative status.  Our version of egoism will say that it is the pleasure and pain that befall the agent of the act that are relevant.  So we need to say a few words about pleasure and pain.)

Some assumptions about pleasure and pain:
- they are feelings, or sensations
- each episode of pleasure or pain has an intensity and a duration; these factors determine the amount of pleasure or pain in the episode
- the hedon is the unit of measurement of pleasure; the number of hedons in an episode of pleasure is determined by the intensity and duration of the episode of pleasure
- the dolor is the unit of measurement of pain; the number of dolors in an episode of pleasure is determined by the intensity and duration of the episode of pain
- Pleasures and pains are "commensurable"; that is, if some pleasure contains the same number of hedons as some pain contains dolors, then we can say that there is an much pleasure in the episode of pleasure as there is pain in the episode of pain.  (This assumption will enable us to add and subtract pleasure and pains, like the assets and liabilities on an accountant's balance sheet.)

We can now define hedonic agent utility as the total number of hedons of pleasure that the agent of the act would feel as a consequence of the act if it were performed, minus the total number of dolors of pain that the agent of the act would feel as a consequence of the act if it were performed.

In more rough terms, to the hedonic agent utility of some alternative is how good the alternative would be for the agent, pleasure-pain-wise.

The last concept is that of maximizing: we say that an act maximizes hedonic agent utility when no alternative to that act has a higher hedonic agent utility than it has.

Finally, we can state the theory, EEh (Ethical Egoism, of a hedonistic sort):

EEh: An act is morally right if and only if it maximizes hedonic agent utility.

So this theory is saying that an act is right when there is nothing else the agent could do on that occasion that would lead to a consequence that would be better for him in terms of pleasure and pain.

      B. Common Misconceptions about Egoism

          1. Immediate Gratification

Egoism is not the doctrine that we should indulge in as much pleasure we can in the short run, without a care for what happens to us in the long run.  And EEh does not imply this because, in order to calculate the hedonic agent utility of an action, you need to figure in all the pleasure and pains that would result, no matter how down the line in the future.

            2. No Altruism

Egoism also does not imply that we should never act altruistically. Rather, it implies that we may act for the benefit of others so long as that act also maximizes our own hedonic utility.  (See Feldman p. 83 for further discussion.)

            3. Psychological Egoism

EEh is a doctrine in ethics, a theory about what we morally ought to do.  However, there is another doctrine -- a doctrine in psychology -- that sometimes goes by the name of "egoism". This other doctrine, "Psychological Egoism," is a view about how human beings happen to be set up, psychologically speaking. It is not a view at all about what we morally ought to do. Psychological Egoism says that we human beings in fact always pursue our own well-being. That is, we always choose the act that we think will be best for us. We are motivated only by the desire for pleasure and an aversion to pain.

      C. Arguments for EEh

            1. Closet Utilitarian Argument

The Closet Utilitarian Argument (from Feldman, p. 86)
(1) If people act in such a way as to maximize their own self-interest, then humanity will be better off as a whole.
(2) People ought to act in whatever way will lead to the betterment of humanity as a whole.
(3) Therefore, people ought to act in such a way as to maximize their own self-interest; in other words, egoism is true.

Criticism of premise (1):
- Feldman's case of the selfish art lover (pp. 85-86).
- The "Tragedy of the Commons"; the "Prisoner's Dilemma"

Criticism of premise (2):
- See Feldman, p. 87.

      D. Arguments Against EEh

          1. Moore's; Baier's; The Promulgation Argument

(see Feldman, Ch. 6)

            2. Feldman's Refutation of EEh

Feldman's Refutation of EEh
1. If EEh is true, then it is morally right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund.
2. It is not right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund.
3. Therefore, EEh is not true.

Imagine a treasurer of large pension fund. He is entrusted with keeping track of and investing the retirement savings of all the workers at a company. He discovers, however, that it would be possible for him to steal all the money in the fund and get away with it, leaving all the workers who worked hard to save their money out of luck. Suppose he does this and succeeds, escaping to a South Sea Island to live out the rest of his days indulging in idle pleasure (at the expense of the workers he screwed back home).

Egoism implies that the fact that this action screws over the workers back home is irrelevant. All that is relevant is whether this action is most in the interests of the treasurer. Well, to see exactly what EEh will have to say about this case, we should fill in the details. Here are the treasurer's alternatives:

        The man's alternatives                      hedonic agent utility
        a1: steal the money                           +10,000
        a2: leave the money where it is                  -3

Let's say these are his two main alternatives at the time. EEh implies that it would be morally acceptable for this guy to steal the money. Why? -- because this act maximizes hedonic agent utility.  That is, if he were to perform it, he would get a greater balance of pleasure over pain than he would get if he were to do any of his alternatives.

So we get premise 1:

        1. If EEh is true, then it is morally right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund.

But this is clearly not right. EEh is mistaken in this verdict. This act is cruel and selfish. It is utterly immoral. Most everyone, I take it, would be prepared to condemn this man for his actions; and we would think it would be appropriate to punish for his ruthless deeds. So we get premise 2:

        2. It is not right for the man to steal the money from the pension fund.

From these two premises, this follows:

        3. Therefore, EEh is not true.

This argument is valid: the conclusion follows logically from the premises. The first premise is clearly true. I also think the second premise is true. I think people behave immorally when they do this. Maybe Ayn Rand is willing to accept this consequence. I myself cannot.  Can you?