Monday, March 6, 2017

Ethical Egoism: Strengths and Weaknesses

Ethical Egoism: Strengths and Weaknesses
Dawn Pisturino
Mohave Community College
Ethical egoism urges people to do the things which best serve their own self-interest.  They should strive to become the best they can possibly be.  In order for this moral principle to hold up, however, it must meet certain criteria.
Ethical Egoism: Strengths and Weaknesses
       Before the principle of ethical egoism can be legitimately defined as a moral code, it must contain certain characteristics.
       Tibor R. Machan (1979) describes ethical egoism as “morality that is tied to benefiting the agent.”  As a moral code, it guides people to be the best they can be and to pursue the best possible goals (Machan, 1979).  It sets a standard of excellence for ambitious people.  In corporate America, the prescriptive statement would be, “Do Your Best!”  In the college setting, the commandment would be, “Follow Your Dreams!”  On the surface, this sounds reasonable enough.  We want our best and brightest to succeed.  But not everybody is ambitious or able to follow this moral code.  Many people are lazy and want to work just hard enough to get by.  Others do not have the necessary talents or mental capacity or stamina.  Ayn Rand believed that a person’s own life is the ethical purpose for his life (Machan, 1979).  If this is true, nobody is obligated to pursue goals that are self-enhancing and ambitious.  People have the right to be lazy and to live a mediocre life.  Therefore, ethical egoism does not guarantee any benefit to society.  It can serve as a prescription for success for some people, but it cannot command people to strive for success.
       According to Pojman and Fieser (2017), moral principles “must apply to all people who are in a relevantly similar situation.”  But many egoists, like Jesse Kalin, believe that ethical egoism is a “personal ethical doctrine” that does not have to apply to all people (Machan, 1979).  This
frees people from conformity, but it opens the door to contradictions because people will not behave consistently (Machan, 1979).  In fact, James Rachels condemns ethical egoism as a threat to society because it undermines social cohesion (Machan, 1979).  Ethical egoism satisfies the characteristic of universalizability in the sense that every person has the right to make his own choices and pursue his own goals.  But it fails in providing a consistent guiding action for individuals to engage in positive conduct that promotes the welfare of society.
       Can ethical egoism as a moral principle override other principles?  J.A. Brunton believes that “the egoistic part in all of us will always find rules, reason, and justification” for our actions (Machan, 1979).  All moral codes contain biases, no matter how noble, because they reflect the individuality of human beings.  Ethical egoism is biased towards the self (Machan, 1979).  The egoist may be able to override his sense of self long enough to help another human being, but only if it best serves his own self-interest (Machan, 1979).  At the very least, he would act “with prudence” to protect his own reputation and social standing (Machan, 1979).  If his own self-preservation is more important to him than his “social commitments,” however, he will not care about engaging in altruistic behavior (Machan, 1979).
       Moral principles that have authority to consistently guide people are widely known and publicized.  Most people have heard the commandment, “Thou Shall Not Kill.”  It has become part of the culture.  Most corporations try to project a benevolent and altruistic image in order to earn the public’s business and respect, whether or not they engage in that kind of behavior.  Corporations notoriously try to save money by cutting corners and reducing jobs in order to maximize profits.  Corporate executives view this as goal-directed actions that provide value to the corporation (the ethical egoist point of view).  If the corporation is producing unsafe products and working conditions as a result of its actions, however, it cannot publicize the results of these actions because the public will object.  Therefore, the ethical egoist point of view only works when corporate executives choose to engage in positive behavior that does not cause harm to others.  Eric Mack confirms this when he states, “the morally good, with respect to each human being, is the successful performance, and the results of the successful performance, of those actions that sustain [living things]” (Machan, 1979).
       Thomas Hobbes stated that it is in the best self-interest of people to obey the rules because “people are inherently selfish” (Pojman & Fieser, 2017).  Without an overriding moral code, society would fall into chaos.  But the moral code must be universal and agreed on by society.  And the threat of punishment or exclusion should be enough to prevent people from breaking the rules.
      David Gauthier describes the ethical egoist as “a person who on every occasion and in everrespect acts to bring about as much as possible of what he values” (Machan, 1979).  By this reasoning, anything can be considered valuable by individuals.  If a drug addict values the effects of heroin, he will devote his time to finding and using heroin.  If a business owner values profit, he will devote his time to making money.  The drug addict is satisfying his own needs.  But if he is stealing in order to support his habit, he is not only acting in his own self-interest but behaving selfishly and harming others.  The business owner may try to deal with his customers honestly, but if he is feeling stressed about money, he may deliberately cheat someone in a moment of need.  He is fulfilling his own self-interest but behaving selfishly by harming the customer.
       In both cases, a standard of excellence was not pursued or achieved, so ethical egoism failed to provide practical and positive effects for society.
       Ethical egoism only works as a legitimate moral code if the agent performs the right action to achieve the right result with the right intention from the beginning (Pojman & Fieser, 2017). 
Machan, T. (1979). Recent work in ethical egoism. American Philosophical Quarterly, 16(1),
       1-15. Retrieved from
Pojman, L.P., & Fieser, J. (2017). Ethics: Discovering right and wrong. Boston, MA:
       Cengage Learning
Dawn Pisturino
February 27, 2017
Ethics 151
Mohave Community College
Kingman, Arizona
Copyright 2017 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

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