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Unit Overview

In this unit we are going to take a little detour from our project of thinking about moral philosophy to consider a fairly common objection to the entire project of moral philosophy. Moral philosophy is the endeavor to think rationally about moral questions but throughout the ages philosophers have raised an important challenge to this project. Some philosophers have argued that everyone is ultimately selfish and there is not really any such thing as morality, that all moral behavior is a sham. This theory is known as “egoism.” There are two versions of the theory: psychological egoism and ethical egoism.

Readings

  • James Rachels – The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Chapter 5
    • You don’t need to be familiar with all the details of the arguments for and against ethical egoism. I just want you to understand the basic concept. I do want you to know  the difference between psychological egoism and ethical egoism but you don’t need to know the arguments for and against psychological egoism.
    • But in this chapter there is a nice section on Ayn Rand’s argument for ethical egoism that your should be familiar with
  • Ayn Rand – The Ethics of Emergencies
  • Plato – Ring of Gyges (optional)

 

A simple argument against ethical egoism

We can provide a very simple argument against ethical egoism in the following form:

  1. If murder is always wrong then ethical egoism is not the correct explanation of morality
  2. Murder is always wrong.
  3. So, ethical egoism is not the correct explanation of morality.

The first premise makes use of the fact that the claim the following two claims can’t both be true:

  1. Ethical egoism is true.
  2. Murder is always wrong.

One of those statements has to be false because according to ethical egoism murder is sometimes morally permitted i.e. murder is permitted when it benefits oneself.

How do we know murder is always wrong? We know this from basic common sense moral reasoning. While it may be hard to provide arguments against error theory and ethical egoism we can simply reject based on the fact that they are in conflict with our most basic moral intuitions.

And since this is the last week in the first unit we can expand the above argument to the include all the other theories of morality we’ve considered.

  1. If murder is always wrong then cultural relativism, divine command theory, subjectivism, error theory and ethical egoism are not the correct explanation of morality.
  2. Murder is always wrong.
  3. So, cultural relativism, divine command theory, subjectivism, error theory and ethical egoism are not the correct explanation of morality.

So, we’re now in a positive to reject all of the various relative or subjective theories of morality that we’ve considered thus far because they all conflict with our most basic moral intuitions that things like murder, slavery, torture, etc. are always wrong.

These things are wrong in all cultures. Even God couldn’t make them morally good. They are wrong no matter what any individual thinks or feels about them. And they are wrong even if they benefit someone.

In the next unit we will consider various rational or objective theories of morality.

 


 

 

 

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