The statement “it is each person’s duty to do what is in his or her best interests” cannot provide the basis for morality because it has no justification for splitting the world up into two categories (ourselves and others) and is unable to discern conflicts of interest. This essay is intended as a discussion of the arguments both for and against codes of self-interest as morality through a discussion of Ethical Egoism and what its universalisation naturally leads to; the idea of social contract.
Ultimately, universalised self-interest cannot provide a moral foundation as it is unacceptably arbitrary- just as our lives are improved by freedom to create, so we value the lives of others to do the same, as products of each can be exchanged to mutual benefit. Duty is understood as every rational individuals moral obligation, best interest as having both immediate and long-term benefits to an individual, and morality refers to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be suggested by all rational persons.
For the purpose of this essay morality is also understood to; 1. Be universalisable and inalienable, consistent and complete 2. Elucidate a conception of a life of excellence for both society and individuals, balancing our own interests with those of others Thus, one can determine if everyone acting from self-interest could provide the basis for morality through the examination of Universal Ethical Egoism, the position that an action is right only if consequences favour the agent performing the action.
I will ultimately conclude that, to create a basis for morality, we must recognise the needs of others and weigh our own interests accordingly; thus a social contract. No twentieth century philosopher has seriously argued for Ethical Egoism, and the few who do usually do so at the expense of redefining ‘self-interest’ to include the interests of others. An Ethical Egoist, however, could respond that self-interest may be incidentally beneficial or neutral in its effect on others.
As follows are, according to James Rachels, three most common arguments in favour of Ethical Egoism, though he adds, “many supporters think its truth is self-evident; arguments aren’t needed”. 1 The first has several variations, each suggesting the same general point; 1. Everyone will be better off if each looks out exclusively for own interests. 2. Therefore, we should exclusively each look out for our own interests Premise 1 rests on the following considerations; Only we are familiar with our own wants and needs and can pursue them effectively.
We are ignorant to the needs of others & cannot pursue them: it is an unwanted intrusion Charity is inherently degrading, implying that one unable to look after oneself Thus everyone would be better off if each acted from self-interest. However, a closer look at this argument reveals serious defects; it is generally accepted that we don’t ‘intrude’ when helping a starving child, but more seriously, it doesn’t support Ethical Egoism because acting out of self-interest is a means to social betterment, which, to the Ethical Egoist, isn’t something we should be concerned about.
A second argument was proposed by Ayn Rand, who regarded the ‘ethics of altruism’ as destructive to both individuals and society as it leads to a denial of the value of the individual; she writes “if men accept the ethics of altruism his first concern is not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it”. 2 She thinks Ethical Egoism has a metaphysical basis, as it is the only code of ethics to take seriously the “reality” of the individual. She argues; 1.
We all have one life, which we each ought to regard as having supreme importance 2. Only Ethical Egoism allows each individuals life supreme importance – Other moral theories consider life as something you may need to sacrifice – Therefore altruism doesn’t allows each individuals life supreme importance 3. Thus, we should all accept Ethical Egoism. Rachel’s criticism of this argument was that it rests on a false dichotomy; it assumes we have only two polar extremes to choose and a commonsense view lies somewhere in the middle.
To be altruist doesn’t demand regarding one’s life as of no importance, and equally, concern for self doesn’t require regarding oneself as the only important thing. The third argument interprets Ethical Egoism not as a revisionist philosophy but as one in which rules and duties are actually derived from a fundamental principle of self-interest. In this sense, it does not attempt to challenge commonsense morality, but, to Rachels, explain and systemise it. This argument provides explanation of duties such as keeping promises, and captures the intuition that I need not let others exploit me.