The Is-Ought Problem
IV. Ethical Egoism
Last time, we argued that objective moral Truth is independent of the existence of God. After learning this, one might come to believe that without a divine source, the only measure of morality left is for people to do what is best for themselves, to spend life pursuing their own goals, interests, and desires. In this view, if helping others does not benefit someone, they have no moral obligation to do so. Basing one’s moral principles on self-interest is called Ethical Egoism.
Ethical Egoism is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, it can inspire people to work hard and put lots of effort into mastering skills, learning, and becoming a better person. The book Atlas Shrugged by the infamous Ethical Egoist Ayn Rand, despite its mind-numbingly shallow characters, has inspired and motivated people to compose beautiful songs, write best-selling novels, or start successful businesses. A few hours after I started reading it, I put it down and cleaned my apartment. There is just something about the call to get up and do something worthwhile that puts fire in people’s veins.
The cover for Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind,
who portrays Ethical Egoism as heroic.
It is a mixed package. The grandness of the life it offers is tempting, but there is a terrifying ugliness to the world it leads to. Our instincts pull us both ways. But we are looking for an objective foundation for morality, so for the moment, we will try to put aside our emotions and see whether Ethical Egoism has a rational foundation.
Ethical Egoism says that we should always aim toward that which would be the most fulfilling to ourselves, or in other words, we should always seek to maximize our own satisfaction. But if we follow that to its logical conclusion, we get a world of Social Darwinism, where the vast majority of people are not satisfied. This does not feel like what morality should be, However, that is not actually a refutation of the theory, but an appeal to intuition, and we have already shown that intuition is not the basis for morality.
One could, in fact, still make a case that Ethical Egoism is the ultimate answer to objective morality. It may be that by everyone doing what is best for themselves, the standard of living is raised for everyone, even though the inequality between the top and the bottom makes it look unfair. However, we can show that is not the case. There is a thought experiment in game theory called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which exposes Ethical Egoism’s fatal flaw. As I explain it, you can follow along in the image below.
Suppose you and someone else are partners in crime. You are caught, and questioned separately. The system is not very just, and you are given an offer: If neither you nor your partner confess, you will both get one year in prison. If you both confess, you will both get three years in prison. If one of you confesses and the other does not, the one who confesses will get off free and the other will get four years in prison. You are told that your partner has also received the same offer.
In cases like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Ethical Egoism actually leads to outcomes that are worse for the people making decisions than some more altruistic moral system would. One could argue that the true option that lines up best with one’s self-interest would be to not commit crimes and to try to improve the legal system, but the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a proof of concept; only the logic matters, not the details. Ethical Egoism defeats itself, failing as a candidate for objective morality.
So far in the Moral Theory series, we have looked at the naive ideas of morality that people fall into with no or little thought, and which professional moral philosophers no longer consider worth pursuing. For the final two episodes, we will take on the big guns. We hope that the glimpses they provide us of moral Truth are as inspiring as Ethical Egoism, without the looming specter of Social Darwinism.