Ethical Egoism vs Big Society

Another old essay that I dug up from my Philosophy Classes at Leeds School for Continuing Education in 2003.  It seems quite relevant today in the light of the discussions on the #bigsociety…

Why does the ethical egoist claim that what he/she has best reason to do is to follow his/her own selfish interests? Is the ethical egoist right?

A tutor (Robert Maslen) once horrified me by suggesting that Regan and Goneril were the real heroes in King Lear (Shakespeare). Not only did they have all the best lines, but that in flouting moral convention, (through mutilation and murder, betrayal and greed), they overcame the King (their father) and took over the Kingdom. They got what they wanted. How could these two odious characters possibly be reasoned to be acceptable heroes? How could they ever arguably be in the right?

To attempt a sympathetic response, we must look at their qualities. Firstly they have courage and a strong, unsentimental will; secondly, they are very clever and make astute use of their language and charms; thirdly they win. This example and that of the story of the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic both emphasise the most a man can win through unethical behaviour. The important thing about this kind of winning is that you will have more control over your own life and others, and therefore more freewill. The rich, successful individual gets to choose where he lives, how he lives, where he travels to and how often; the rich and celebrated may also set the social moral standard and probably have more fun. Therefore one outstanding reason to argue for the pursuit of ones own goals singularly might be that to do so gives the individual potentially more freewill.

In the tale of the Ring of Gyges (a ring that renders the wearer invisible and thus able to commit many dishonesties undetected), Glaucon argues that men only act within a certain moral code to satisfy the law. He says rules bind men and that the law allows the most that men can get away with, without harming another man too much.

“that no one is just willingly but under compulsion”.[1]

This implies that all men would be unjust, but for the restraint of social moral agreement. It makes nothing of the fact that men have a natural faculty for sympathy or co-operation. Glaucon also asserts that just and unjust men would follow the same path if they both possessed such a ring as Gyges. On the face of it this would be doubtful. Another more ambiguous scenario might be this: if Income Tax was made into a voluntary payment to the state, how many people would think hard about it and pay it on account of duty, conscience or obligation? Whereas most people agree that theft and murder are wrong, (and are glad of the law to protect them), a lot of people also agree that having to pay taxes is a nuisance, (and curse the law that makes them pay them). By not paying tax, just men would, undetected like Gyges, prevent the sick being cured and the poor being educated, they would cause indirect harm to others. In this instance I think Glaucon’s theory is right, that just and unjust men would behave in exactly the same way. What is positive though is that some people would pay, perhaps the majority, in the recognition that society is made up of ourselves, for ourselves.

At the end of Glaucon’s argument, he reasons who is to be judged the happier: the Just man who seeks no glory for his good nature (and is thus wrongly accused of being unjust), or the Unjust man who revels in the praise of his projected ‘just’ persona?

Peter Singer says:

“if our life has no other meaning other than our own happiness we are likely to find that when we have obtained what we think we need to be happy, happiness still eludes us.”[2]

We might take time here to ponder what happiness we are talking about; contentment is probably a better word for what I perceive to be at stake in this essay. The just man despite lacking in riches or favourable opinion might still obtain a sense of satisfaction and contentment in having lived a just life.

The actor Paul Eddington, when asked in an interview what he would like his epitaph to read replied: “that he did little harm”. This might read as negative, but in not doing harm, one does some good, one protects the interests of others by not infringing on them.

The ethical egoist might reason further that there are no selfless acts since even to be altruistic is to grant some peace of mind in the self, and therefore why act altruistically at all?

James Rachels asserts that :

“The reason one ought to do actions which benefit other people is that: Other people would be benefitted. The point is that the welfare of human beings is something most of us value for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of something else…that our reason is that these policies are for the good of human beings”.[3]

In every day life this means helping out others often with tedious little chores that take up our time. Why indeed do them? Most might argue ‘to be involved’, or ‘to be kind for the sake of being kind’ – in either case they make us happier. It is true that if seen to be consistently kind there is the danger of people taking advantage of your disposition. Compare this line from Pride and Prejudice:

“…I have great pleasure in thinking you will be so happily settled. I have not a doubt of your doing very well together. …You are each so complying that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income.” [4]

I think this quotation is useful, since it admits both sides of the argument. We can see why these people will be happy but at the same time agree with Mr Bennett’s judgement upon mankind. One then might perceive the wisest path of behaviour to be somewhere in the middle, to be kind and selfless appropriately with reason, whilst also watching for one’s own interest with similar good reason, ie that others may have cause to impede it.

We might value acts of good will and charity as these fill the void left by the law. An extraordinary set of people volunteer to care for the mentally ill or severely handicapped, those who have little or nothing to “contribute” to society. Like Rachels[5] we could argue that the act is valuable in itself. To pursue it, I would argue that these people have motivation to do what they do. They have freewill, and it cannot be cowardice (I mean this in the Sartrean sense of cowardice as the evasion of our own freedom), to act so positively to the far good side of the moral code. Simply, they help because it makes them happy in some way. There can be no goal in sight as these people are not going to miraculously recover. The volunteer is however living out his freewill to do this.  Sartre argues[6] that we do not fully exist unless we are in that state of ‘becoming’ , that of being involved in an activity which takes us out of ourselves. It is this living out of our resolutions that might generate our happiness and ongoing satisfaction with life. The ethical egoist may have goals and ambitions in mind, but will happiness elude him once he has them – and what will he strive to obtain next and at what cost to anybody else? The phrase “it is not the winning but the taking part” is useful here.

As James Rachels argues it is not just the selfish action (eg giving someone that fifty pence for a cup of tea brings me happiness) that is to be noted but also the object of the action (it brings the desperate man what he needs). If a headline read in tomorrows papers “MOTHER TERESA SECRET DIARY SHOCK – SHE DID IT ALL TO SAVE HER OWN SOUL”. I don’t think many people would condemn her nor think that what she did was any less valuable. Likewise, the selfish act that causes harm cannot be reasoned to be legitimate, since it devalues anothers existence.

On the whole ethical egoism seems to be a bit of a self deception: that the course that I follow, that of my own desires is more important than anybody else’s; that everybody else would behave in the same way if they were only as cunning or as daring as me; that all acts are for the self anyway. Like the French banner, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, a society needs interaction, responsibility, the regularity of law as well as spontaneity of kindness to succeed. The ethical egoist, set amidst a larger picture of society would not seem very much of a hero unless he contributed something magnificent to the world. (Scientific, artistic or mathematical geniuses tend to be a bit selfish in their own private worlds, but produce something to change the world in some way). Isolated examples of rare characters might be challenging to the concept of harmonious society, but at large, the ethical egoist cannot be reasoned to be right. To go back to King Lear:

The.. wicked children are all destroyed in their superficially sane pursuit of self interest. They all believe in looking after themselves; they all implicitly deny that we are members of one another; they assume that man is a competitive rather than a co-operative animal.[7]


[1] Glaucon, Book II, The Republic by Plato

[2] Peter Singer, Why Act Morally? Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life 5Th edition, ed. Sommers and Sommers

[3] James Rachels Egoism and Moral Skepticism, Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life 5Th edition, ed Sommers and Sommers

[4] Mr Bennett to Jane, Chapter 55, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

[5]James Rachels Egoism and Moral Skepticism, Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life 5Th edition, ed Sommers and Sommers

[6] Being and Nothingness

[7] Heilman This Great Stage 1948 as referred to in the Introduction to King Lear ed. Kenneth Moore, Arden Shakespeare 1971

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One thought on “Ethical Egoism vs Big Society

  1. Pingback: Why the bitches always win | the mutability cantos

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