Ethical Egoism and Arbitrariness

Keith Burgess-Jackson writes:

In [James Rachels] chapter on ethical egoism from The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003), which is one of the most widely used ethics textbooks in the United States, Rachels discusses three arguments in its favor and three against it. Before discussing one of the arguments, let me state the theory. According to Rachels, ethical egoism "is the idea that each person ought to pursue his or her own self-interest exclusively" (77). The theory does not say that one may never benefit others, because others may be incidentally benefited by one's pursuit of one's self-interest. Also, if I take an interest in the well-being of others, such as my children, then benefiting them promotes my self-interest. Nor is ethical egoism the theory that one should do as one pleases or do whatever makes one happy. It requires that one maximize one's long-term rational self-interest. It is not just imprudent for me to smoke; it is wrong. To an ethical egoist, prudence and morality converge.

I want to focus on the third of Rachels's three arguments against ethical egoism. He calls it "The Argument That Ethical Egoism Is Unacceptably Arbitrary" (88). It goes like this:

1. If a moral theory rests on a morally arbitrary distinction, then it is false/unacceptable.

2. Ethical egoism rests on a morally arbitrary distinction (namely, between self and others).


3. Ethical egoism is false/unacceptable (from 1 and 2).

According to Rachels, the distinction between self and others is as arbitrary as the distinction between one's own race and other races. Thus, ethical egoism has the same status as racism. Here is how he puts it:

    Ethical Egoism . . . advocates that each of us divide the world into two categories of people--ourselves and all the rest--and that we regard the interests of those in the first group as more important than the interests of those in the second group. But each of us can ask, what is the difference between me and everyone else that justifies placing myself in this special category? Am I more intelligent? Do I enjoy my life more? Are my accomplishments greater? Do I have needs or abilities that are so different from the needs or abilities of others? In short, what makes me so special? Failing an answer, it turns out that Ethical Egoism is an arbitrary doctrine, in the same way that racism is arbitrary. (89; italics in original)

Rachels thinks that this argument, of the three he gives, "comes closest to an outright refutation of Ethical Egoism" (88). Is he right?

I think Rachels's argument proves far too much. Let us concede, for the sake of argument, that the difference between self and others is arbitrary. (I don't for a moment believe this. Nor do you.) This means (according to Rachels) that there is no morally relevant difference between self and others. But if that's the case, how can a person give even slightly more weight to his or her own interests in deciding what to do? Presumably, Rachels would condemn even a slight preference for one's own race. If race is arbitrary, as he says, then it must play no role whatsoever in our deliberations. But if ethical egoism is analogous to racism, as Rachels claims, then I may not show even a slight preference for myself. Nor may you.

I just finished reading The Elements of Moral Philosophy for a class I am taking this semester. What's especially interesting about Rachels's "unacceptably arbitrary" argument against Ethical Egoism is that Rachels refutes his own argument later in the book. On page 110, in his chapter on Utilitarianism, Rachels writes:

But the problem is not merely that Utilitarianism would require us to give up most of our material resources. Equally important, abiding by Utilitarianism?s mandates would make it impossible for us to carry on our individual lives. Each of our lives includes projects and activities that give it character and meaning; these are what make our lives worth living. But an ethic that requires the subordination of everything to the impartial promotion of the general welfare would require us to abandon those projects and activities. Suppose you are a cabinet-maker, not getting rich but making a comfortable living; you have two children that you love; and on weekends you like to perform with an amateur theater group. In addition you are interested in history and you read a lot. How could there be anything wrong with this? But judged by the utilitarian standard, you are leading a morally unacceptable life. After all, you could be doing a lot more good if you spent your time in other ways.

In practice, none of us is willing to treat all people as equals, for it would require that we abandon our special relationships with friends and family. We are all deeply partial where our friends and family are concerned. We love them and we go to great lengths to help them. To us, they are not just members of the great crowd of humanity?they are special. But all this is inconsistent with impartiality. When you are impartial, intimacy, love, affection and friendship fly out the window.

The fact that Utilitarianism undermines our personal relationships seems to many critics to be its single greatest fault. Indeed, at this point Utilitarianism seems to have lost all touch with reality. What would it be like to be no more concerned for one?s husband or wife than for strangers whom one has never met? The very idea is absurd; not only is it profoundly contrary to normal human emotions, but the institution of marriage could not even exist apart from understandings about special responsibilities and obligations. Again, what would it be like to treat one?s children with no greater love than one has for strangers? As John Cottingham puts it, ?A parent who leaves his child to burn, on the ground that the building contains someone else whose future contribution to the general welfare promises to be greater, is not a hero; he is (rightly) an object of moral contempt, a moral leper.?

Rachels cannot have it both ways. If Ethical Egoism is unacceptably arbitrary, Rachels cannot make the preceding argument about Utilitarianism undermining our personal relationships, because our personal relationships are unacceptably arbitrary as well.

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