Ethical egoism

Kadekiwala asks:

Suppose one of your friends tells you that the meaning of life is nothing other than “get yours while you can” (take what you can get out of life while you have the opportunity). What philosophical theory of meaning of life does this view belong to? Identify, explain and evaluate.

Answer from Craig Skinner

Identify: my friend is not telling me how things are (people are selfish – Psychological Egoism). Rather, she is advising how we should be (Ethical Egoism).

Explain: it’s the ethical viewpoint, that I should consider only my own interests. As with non-egoistical views, I can think of it in utilitarian terms (act to maximize happiness -mine, that is), or deontologically (do my duty – to myself of course, I have no duty to others).

Evaluate: there is no knockdown argument to convince a determined egoist to change her ways. We are not asking why people in general should go along with society’s norms. Without this, our lives, as Hobbes said, would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. No, the egotist wants to live in a generally moral society, but to take advantage of it in her own self-interest, if she can get away with it without loss of reputation. In short, she is what Hume calls “a sensible knave” and he confesses to having no good answer to the determined, careful, egoist.

Plato had a go. His Republic tells the story of Gyges who finds an invisibility ring, and, using its powers, kills the king, marries the queen, becomes rich. Glaucon asks Socrates which of us would act differently, challenging him to prove that it is always better to be moral (“just”) rather than immoral even if the latter goes undetected and brings great benefit. Socrates says immorality damages the soul, and even claims that a moral person who is reviled, rejected, and unfairly regarded as immoral is still happier than an undetected egoist who is rich and well-respected. Most readers find Glaucon’s question more compelling than Socrates’ answer.

Suggested justifications for not being egoistic are:

  1. God commands it.
  2. Makes for a fulfilling life.
  3. Irrational to do otherwise.

1. Even assuming there are any gods, obeying for fear of punishment or hope of reward smacks of egoism in any case. Of course we should obey because what is commanded is good. But the egoist disagrees and we are no further on.

2. Socrates’, Aristotle’s and Hume’s view. Virtue is necessary for eudaimonia (flourishing) according to our nature as rational, social animals. I have sympathy with this view, that the ruthless, wealthy mobster, forever looking over his shoulder, “respected” by his peers, feared by many, loved by few or none, is ignorant of what constitutes real happiness. But I accept that the sensible knave can simply say it’s crazy to deny Gyges had a great life, married a queen, ruled a kingdom, what more do you want.

3. Kant’s view. The moral law is what we legislate for ourselves as rational autonomous beings, to not follow it would be irrational.. But again, the egoist simply says she formulates maxims for her own interests and rationally follows them.

For completeness, recent attempts by Nagel, Parfit and Alison Hills to cast doubt on the coherence of the egoist position, are, in my view, no more convincing.

But here we are no worse off than when trying to convince the determined sceptic that the external world exists. I think, with Aristotle and the virtue ethicists, that we have reason to be moral: it is the way to a fulfilled life, although luck, good and bad, also plays a big part.

Finally, if my friend had said that the “meaning of life is nothing” full stop, rather than “…nothing other than etc”, that would be Nihilism, which has no necessary connection with ethical egoism, but that’s another story.

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