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.

Parts and wholes

Salih asks:

I had an argument with a friend of mine concerning part whole relation, he argues that there cannot be any entity with parts because of a contradiction. Nothing can be many things (so only unities can exist) so for example he says an animal cannot be one for it has diverse parts and so one part say a wing cannot be a hand for it will cease to be a wing and nothing can be many things so nothing can unite these things. So how should I reply?

Answer from Craig Skinner

Ah, you and your friend have started a discussion on mereology (the logic of parts and wholes) and are touching on the special composition question, gerrymandered objects and mereological nihilism.

But I wont go into any of that here. You and your friend will get round to it if you keep going.

How should you reply, you ask.

To keep things going I suggest you tell your friend you wont listen to him because he doesnt exist. He is a (human) animal, having diverse parts, and so, by his own admission, not a unity and therefore non-existent. Ask him, too, why he bothers to argue with you since he knows you dont exist either. It may help your exchange if you agree that, although you dont exist, being just a collection of parts (ultimately fundamental particles) arranged Salih-wise, and he is just particles arranged friend-of-Salih-wise, you can pretend to exist.

It’s hard work, though, pretending to exist when you dont, and so, worn out with it, I’ll settle the Craigwise-arranged particles in my favourite easychairwise particle arrangement, and leave you and your friend to get on with it till you get things clear.

Asking the Big Questions

Ross Campbell asks:

I’m a graduate in philosophy and I wish to write a book in philosophy. The title I have in mind is “Why philosophy matters: Asking the Big Questions”. I’m looking for advice as to whether this is a good theme for a book and what topics I should include in the book. I welcome any advice. Thanks.

Answer from Craig Skinner

I applaud your ambition.

I answer as a potential reader, rather than as a writer. My own writings comprise scientific and medical papers and the occasional book chapter, and more recently, philosophy articles and editorials online. No book.

Your book sounds as if it’s intended for educated general readers. If considering buying your book, I would ask myself if it adds anything to existing titles. So I suggest you read (maybe you have) these 3 recent short books on the same theme:

Ultimate Questions (2016) Bryan Magee

What is philosophy for (2018) Mary Midgeley

What is philosophy and Why Study It? the Case for Relevance (2020) Max Malikow

Proceed if you feel you can add something or do it better.

As for title, it’s OK, a bit ho hum (yawn), Magee and Midgeley are snappier, but at least it tells us the content. Cynics of course will say, these people forever ask the questions, never answer them.

Content will include:

What exists?  matter, the external world, selves, God, free will, numbers, possibilities, causes etc

What can we know? what is knowledge, can we be certain, scepticism, limits (Godel, Heisenberg), logics etc

How should we live? ethics (meta-, systems, practical), philosophy as ways of life etc

Good luck. I hope you get a perspective from those who have written books, especially successful ones.

More on too much philosophy

Saleh asks:

How to stop thinking philosophically about everything? I feel that instead of enjoying life and the things around me I put so much energy and time analyzing them and looking for explanations like thinking in terms of of Aristotle’s causes or in terms of part-whole relations and so many ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. So how to lose interest in that or at least how to learn not to put so put so much energy and time on it?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Geoffrey Klempner has given a brilliant answer. I agree with all he says.

I just want to add one comment.

One reason people may be put off philosophy is that the subject sometimes seems remote from everyday life. Modern academic philosophy is a specialized, technical field with journal articles opaque to the general reader or even to other philosophers working in different branches of the subject. And  I can understand that the average student might wilt during the seminar on alternatives to material implication as truth conditions for counterfactual conditionals, and head for a fun evening with friends as soon as it’s over.

But philosophy wasnt always a subject for essays, exams and degrees.

How should we live? That was the central question for the ancient greats, with Socrates, Aristotle, Stoics, Epicureans and Neoplatonists (and the greats of Indian and Chinese philosophy) offering different, overlapping views. They all assumed cosmic order within which humanity had a proper place, and the task was to define that place. But this was overtaken in the West by Christianity, which imposed its own vision of how we should live. However, it has resurfaced, especially in Continental philosophy, since the “death of God” but without the assumption of cosmic order, so that the question has become, not how should we live, but how might we live, the central concern of Deleuze, Derrida or Foucault. If there are no constraints due to preordained cosmic order or fixed human nature (I dont say I agree with this), then we can improvise and experiment with ways of living, and not just understand, but change, the world, maybe for the better.

At any rate, philosophy as a way of life is back on the table, whether Socratic, Stoic, Aristotelian, Deleuzian, Nagarjunian or whatever, and Geoffrey and Pathways has done much to promote the idea that philosophy is for everybody and is central to worthwhile human life.

Death of Socrates

Stephanie asks:

  1. Pick a famous death.
  2. Pick a philosopher: either Camus, Locke, Epicurus or Plato.
  3. Why did you choose the philosopher you did? What is you initial feeling about what they would say about the famous death.

Answer by Craig Skinner

I’ll be brief, and quick since you ask for my initial (not my considered) feelings.

1. Socrates.

2. Plato.

3 (a) most famous and greatest of the four and pupil of Socrates.

(b) Camus: would say it was an admirable death. Socrates was authentic (existentialists like this); and Camus liked suicide as an option.

 Locke: disagreed with Socrates’ implicit social contract and elite rulers, preferring his own explicit contract and majority rule. Would have said Socrates should have taken the chance when he had it to escape death, go abroad and keep his head down.

 Epicurus: agreed with Socrates that death was not to be feared, although Epicurus thought death was annihilation, Socrates thought it a blessing.

 Plato: the death was pretty much murder by the state (Socrates was outspoken and made enemies), plus Socrates was honourable, accepting the city’s judgment, but refusing to stop his philosophical dialogues in public places.

Things and their properties

Saleh asks:

Aristotle said matter is the ultimate subject of predicates but it cannot exist on its own without any predicate or form for it would be nothing but still we need it as the substratum for predication. My question is why cannot there be a pure subject without any predicate?

Or alternatively why cannot we have a predicate existing as thing without any substratum? Why subject and predicate must go hand in hand?

Answer by Craig Skinner

We agree that the everyday physical world consists of things + properties (subjects+predicates in your terminology; substances+ accidents in Aristotle’s).

So your first question is why cant we have a thing with no properties? If we say a thing is the bearer of its properties, and strip away all the properties, we are left with a bare particular as the substratum. But what kind of entity could this be? If the substratum has no properties whatsoever, we could exchange the substrata of a dog and a stone say, and add all the properties back in. But now the entity with all the dog properties is really a stone. Absurd. An alternative view is the bundle theory which says that a thing just is all of its properties: take these away and there is nothing left. But, in that case, what is it that binds these properties together to make a particular thing? I think the substratum theory and the bundle theory are incoherent. No, the bearer of the properties is the thing itself, which is prime matter (potential) taking the form of that particular thing, as Aristotle says.

Aristotle correctly called a thing (substance) a “being in itself”, a self-standing item which cant be predicated (or be a property) of anything else. A property (predicate, accident, quality), on the other hand, can only be “present in another” i.e. as a feature of a thing. By definition a property is not, and cant be, a thing. Thus you never come across a big or a black or an old, there always has to be a big, black or old something. Plato, by the way, thought that properties in the everyday world were instances of universals which exist in another heavenly world of Forms. So the black in my cat instantiates the Form of the Black (blackness). Even if every black thing in the world were destroyed, the Form of the Black would remain, just uninstantiated. But Aristotle thought blackness existed only as and in its instances. “Goodbye to the Forms, for they are nonsense” he said. I’m with Aristotle — properties exist in things, not prior to them, in rebus rather than ante rem, as the philosophers of old put it.

Finally, Aristotle’s metaphysics of potentiality/ actuality, substance/ accidents, matter/ form, essence/ existence, and four causes/ causal powers is increasingly recognized as the framework underlying physics and biology, after a long period of misrepresentation and neglect beginning with early moderns such as Hobbes, Descartes and Locke, and I’m pleased you’re interested in it.