Neil Haddow

(This essay was originally written as part of Haddow's coursework for the degree of Master of Arts in Philosophy.)


According to Henry Sidgwick the main problem of modern ethics has been how to reconcile self-interest and morality. In The Methods of Ethics he states:"...`I' am concerned with the quality of my existence as an individual in a sense, fundamentally important, in which I am not concerned with the quality of the existence of other individuals" (p.498). The problem Sidgwick is grappling with here is that of reconciling our desire to maximize our own utility (pleasure) and of doing the right thing (moral rules). What is morally right is thought to be what is interpersonal, or universalizable; yet how can we bring in our own inclinations to do what we want to do when this conflicts with duty? As Douglas Den Uyl states, most moral theories do allow for some self-interest but usually through the back door (p.19such as `private vice' (selfish behaviour) is accepted because it leads to `publick benefits'general utility). David Gauthier for instance states that "moral principles [are] principles for rational choice. In a very general and important type of interaction [cooperative]...a rational actor wouldI claimbase his or her choice among possible actions on a moral principle, provided he or she expected others to do likewise" (1983 pp.68-69). So there is a dichotomy between doing what is moral and doing what the agent wants, so much so that one only has an incentive to be moral if he thinks it will somehow payoff. Of course we are not going to outline why egoism seems morally repugnant, but we will do well to understand that for Sidgwick, as for many of our contemporaries, self-interest is seen as equivalent to a kind of cunning, or cleverness in reasoning. If this notion can be dispelled then we will have a basis for our own view of egoism, or rational self-interest, as a virtue.

The following essay will attempt to argue for a consistent form of normative egoism, or self-interest. This kind of egoism will be defined and contrasted to traditional renditions of egoism. I do not want to be charged with a kind of Humpty-Dumptyism, because I define the term in a way that is outside the usual usage; but this usual usage may have to be dropped if the definition cannot be made out in a consistent way. My own definition of egoism, and contrasted definition of altruism, will be defended as the best normative definitions of these terms. The first section, then, will present a definition of egoism and altruism that is based on the differentia `sacrifice'. This will allow us to see the mistake often made of equating altruism with benevolence and egoism with only direct benefits to oneself. The definitions presented will be important because self-interest will not be presented in a way that makes it psychological, or trivially self-evident. Altruism will have to be possible as a normative theory, or else what is the point of arguing for egoism as a normative theory?

In the second section, we will consider arguments against normative egoism. These arguments are the most pertinent because they challenge directly the claim that egoism can be made a consistent metaethical theory. In particular we will examine the claims of GE Moore that the egoist is in trouble because he must accept subjectivism (because egoism requires that the egoist `make' things `good'); and, therefore, the egoist cannot make his case for prescriptions in a consistent way, since he must admit that each person thinks of his own good as the sole universal good; but to do this is to end up contradicting oneself, for it would have to be asserted by the egoist that each person's good is the only good that there is. In order to show where Moore has gone wrong we will need to distinguish between agent -neutral and agent-relative value. With this distinction in mind, coupled with a view of objectivity that does not presuppose impartiality, the egoist will be ready to show Moore how his theory is both coherent and realistic enough to pass Euthyphro-type tests.

What we will be left with is a theory of egoism with great appeal (one should hope); for it does not assume a conflict model of ethics, and it also permits agents to pursue their own values which may or may not relate to others. In concluding, I think it will be shown that egoism is logically coherent because it is the virtue of always acting in one's best interest; and the logic of this position is based on the agent's own particular point of view including his esoteric interests, which cannot and need not always be universalized.


[S]acrificial altruism masquerades as benevolence, generosity, kindness. In fact, I think it can be shownand has been shownthat these latter traits, the virtues of benevolence, are expressions of rational self-interest on the part of those who know the values they derive from living with others. And true altruism, which views each person as a means to the ends of other people—a potential sacrificial victimis hardly a doctrine on which to base brotherly love. (Kelley p.11).

In this section we will be concerned with demarcating altruism from egoism; this is no small task. Indeed, it may seem like putting the cart before the horse to try to define our terms before we have done any real investigation. Popper is notorious for having put forward such a criticism of `definition before investigation'of defining the meaning before entering useful discussion; unfortunately, all that we can do here is to plead for mercy: hoping that the definitions here do not seem too odd. We could perhaps start off with the terms `egoism' and `altruism' undefined, but where would we go from this position? So we will just try to set up the most plausible definitions and opposition possible between these two antipodes. This will be important, we shall see, because altruism is too often equated with benevolence and egoism with hedonistic utility maximization. The meanings that will be distilled will be much deeper, hence more interesting.

Thomas Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism attempts to define what he means by the term `altruism' as follows. The quest for altruism is basically the attempt to show how anyone could possibly act in an altruistic way. Common sense would seem to tell us that whenever one acts he does so out of some interesteven the interest in being altruistic! Nagel admits that "[a]ltruistic reasons are parasitic upon self-interested ones'(1970 p.16). It seems then that altruistic actions will be those that are the analogue of the self-interested ones; viz., the actions that are done to benefit others out of a sense of dutyyet that are not wholly divorced from some sense of desiring to perform those actions (prudential reasons). And this seems valid enough. For we will want to accept altruism as a possibility, or else what will be the point of arguing for egoism? For now it is interesting to note that Nagel seems to make his version of altruism too broad. He says,

It must be emphasized that by altruism I do not mean only the variety of noble self-sacrifice often associated with that epithet. I mean any behavior motivated merely by the belief that someone will benefit or avoid harm by it. Our lives are filled with such behavior; most of it is mundane considerateness which costs us nothing, and involves neither self-sacrifice nor nobilityas when we tell someone that he has a flat tire or a wasp on his hamburger (1970. p.16).

Nagel states that he will use `altruism' without apology to cover any behavior that benefits others (ibid); he cannot see any other term that will work. Yet what about `benevolence', a term which seems to have escaped his search? What we will argue here is that a more distinctive differentia between egoism and altruism is sacrifice.

I will note here briefly what I mean by `sacrifice'. This term refers here to the substitution of a lesser for a higher value. How values can be evaluated will be relative in part to one's nexus; but it need not be wholly subjective as we will see. On this view of sacrifice one can achieve a be a complete psychological egoist (utility maximizer) yet also consistently do what is not in one's best interest, since lesser values are chosen (for whatever reason) over greater values.

In arguing for sacrifice as the differentia between egoism and altruism we may seem to go against popular usage, which fits in with Nagel's use. But this cannot be helped; what our own definition will require is that benevolence be pried apart from altruism. Altruism is not benevolence because what altruism often signifies is the view that what is good is simply putting others before oneself. An account of altruism is given by W.G. MacLagan:

Has a man any moral obligation, or for that matter any moral right, to take account, in the determination of his conduct, of his own pleasure or happiness, or of his own unhappiness or distress?...I wish to support the view that he has none. This view is what will here be meant by `Altruism" (p.109).

Whether altruism is seen as a duty because others are primary, or whether it is seen as a virtue, is not important here; what is important is the fact that altruism is the belief that others are primary, in the sense that what is of value is the values of others. So while altruism, to be truly distinctive, should be seen as requiring some sort of sacrifice on the part of the agent, benevolence may not require sacrifice. Below this will be argued for as we set up what seems to be the proper opposition between egoism and altruism.

Having seen that benevolence does not require sacrifice, we are now in a position to examine altruism as a doctrine requiring self-sacrifice, and egoism as not requiring sacrificebut, put more positively, the pursuit of values. To make this point clear let us turn to the following opposition: egoism and altruism are contrary terms. Which is to say that they do not contradict one another, but they do exclude one another; one cannot be both altruistic and egoistic at the same time (although one could be neither, which is not possible if they were contradictories). Furthermore, this contrary distinction points out the implausibility of construing altruism as benevolence. Firstly, those who claim that altruism is basically (or often) benevolence are saying that the term means `non -self -sacrificial other-concern'there is no sacrifice involved (Rogers 1994 p.295). This means that altruism, to be benevolence, makes egoism its contradictory; egoism becomes most vile, that is to say, qua contradictory, if it means non-benevolence. Of course, it would still be possible for the adherent of this view to take egoism as the contrary, which would make it `non- other-sacrificial self-concern'! And I must agree with Rogers when she states that we just do not hear egoism used in such a way by the altruist. We will see that such a definition as Nagel's allows the term `altruism' when it covers acts of benevolenceto be too broad. Benevolent acts need not be altruistic because they are not principled, nor are they necessarily sacrificial. So, the opposition we will need will be based on the idea that altruism qua altruism requires self-sacrifice, and that egoism qua egoism does not.

As we noted at the beginning with Sidgwick, one of the main problems with modern ethics is how to reconcile my interests with moral prescriptions. But this distinction does not need to be as prominent as it has been; for here the theory asserts that when we act altruistically we are giving up values, and when we act egoistically we are notviz., we are achieving them. Now on the contemporary view, as Rogers notes, agents are thought to be in conflict—that for agent a to achieve x, is for him to take that away from b—which is so fundamental that morality can only be about others. So the quest becomes, as it seems to be with Nagel, how can we possibly explain agents who are concerned with other `people's' welfare. If we are innately determined to maximize our own utility, then why do we do things for people at allin the sense of doing them out of joy because of who they are? On the conflict -model, as Rogers calls it, if one does something for another, intends to benefit him, then she is acting altruistically (1994 p.294). The model needs such an explanation simply because a kind of cynicism is built into it! Yet, if we do not accept the conflict- model notice that if one does something for another it could be simply because the person is being nice (ibid). But on the conflict model the altruist believes that — actually to be concerned with othersshe must forego her own values or interests in order to achieve a virtuous disposition. But the view outlined here cuts through this impasse, for when we achieve values, act self-interestedly, we may or may not be affecting others. But what is important is that when acting egoistically we can act for others if they are of value to us. So, egoism does not have to necessarily rule-out benefitting others when this is in our interest.

The definition of egoism to be defended and explicated is as follows:

Ethical Egoism=
def. The (consistent) disposition of acting in one's own best interestthat is, acquiring values. There are necessary conditions for this definition of egoism: the acts must be chosen if they are not, then person is not in control of himself (even if he benefits himself somehow); and the action must be goal-directedso that the agent has a means-ends scheme in mind (where means=egoism and end= goal). And finally, the other necessary condition is that of consistency: the egoist must be said to have a disposition to act for himself, not just do it occasionally. But these are not sufficient conditions, because the disposition that is consistent, chosen, goal-directed, must also be directed at `real' values—some justified end. (As we will see in sec. 3 this does mean intrinsic or agent-neutral value—value here is always agent-relative). So the pursuit of a real endwhat is truly in one's interest is sufficient to make one an egoist.

Hence, contrariwise:

Ethical Altruism=
def. The (consistent) disposition to act for the interests of otherseither their best interests, or desires. The necessary condition for ethical altruism is that one act for others; but this is not sufficient, for the agent (qua altruist) must also intend this action; also it must be done consistently (on principle); and, it must be chosen consciously.

Obviously there are may other propositions involved here, but I can only present a few points towards a groundwork (many of these points are expanded in Mack's essay "How to derive Ethical Egoism"). Firstly, I am presuming that there is an answer to the question `how are values possible?' And I am assuming that it is self-evident that they arise in the context of life. And it is only humans who choose and reason their way to valueslife for us is not automatic, but requires some process of thinking and choosing. So, if values arise in this way we are pursuing values when we act in our own intereststhese are equivalent here, on this ethical egoist theory. Therefore, when an agent does not look out for his own interests, but only others' (in a principled waynot out of lethargy), he is said to be acting altruistically—because values are that which the agent acts to achieve—that which is truly (in whatever context) in his self-interest). Yet notice that while a value is agent-relative (as will be argued in sec.4), the good may be generic. In order to instantiate the good, it must be tied to a person's interests and self(his `nexus').

So we have seen in this section that the best notions of altruism and egoism are captured when we use sacrifice as a differentia between them. With this distinction we can see that while altruism requires sacrifice for virtue, egoism need not require only looking out for oneself. Indeed it would seem that, as Kelley noted in the quote at the head of this section, egoism permits a person to actually be benevolent because this motivation comes from an actual concern with another's welfare; the altruist is in the hard position of trying to satisfy others based on the fact that they desire him to do so—that this desire of others is what he needs to satisfy. Furthermore, we have seen that modern ethics requires that agent's be seen as maximizing entities that are always (potentially) in conflict. Yet to view the world this way is to make it very hard to understand how a person could possibly wish to benefit others, since the choice seems to be between sacrificing others or oneself. As Ayn Rand noted, regarding what she called `selfishness', if it is true that self-interest is not what people usually conceive it to be,

then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers -on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites—that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among menthat it permits no concept of justice (Rand 1998 p.xii).

In summing up, I have tried to define and contrast egoism and altruism using the differentia sacrifice. In everyday life, though, there will be many cases of behaviour that are not subsumed clearly under either term; as mentioned the terms are not in contradictory opposition so both could fail to apply to a certain act. Such a case would be holding the door open for a stranger—this is benevolence, not egoism or altruism. In order then for an act to qualify as sacrificial or not, it must be fit into one's life plan—or some sort of personal nexus that guides action (which I will discuss later in sec. 3). Egoism and altruism are principled ways of actingso that, with my example above, if one stopped to hold the door for another burdened with a load, while one's wife lay dying, then he would be acting as an altruist. Or even cases where doing something that is really goodjustifiably good for any rational agentcould still be a case of altruism of egoism—it would depend upon the person's interests. So, one man's egoism could be another's altruism—if he pursues good that he has no real interest in! As we will see in the third section, this relativity is thought to be egoism's undoing, for it fails a widely used criterion of moral theory: Universalizability.


"For a single man on a desert island, moral reasoning would be unnecessary and pointless, except on the assumption that he is in interaction with persons beyond his island, whether men or gods." So writes Kurt Baier.... A Robinson Crusoe figure, to be sure, would have many prudential concerns: studying his island's flora and fauna, navigating its streams, finding food, building a sturdy shelter.... But since nothing Crusoe does affects others, morality on the self-other paradigm is silent concerning him. If one accepts this paradigm, it would seem to follow that all Crusoe's activities—at least, until Friday arrives—must be `beyond good and evil' (Rogers 1997 p.2).

As the quotes in the introduction pointed out, much of modern ethical/ moral theory deals only with interpersonal actions. This very position is often brought to bear on ethical egoism—almost to rule it out by definition. And in this section we will be looking at the arguments of GE Moore, who tries to show that egoism is non-universalizable. Yet the position outlined here will require a broad defense, which includes an explanation of agent-neutrality, and a defense of objectivity sans impersonalistic universality. But first, there are two skeptical arguments that we will need to address: the first I will call `the what's so special about me' argument; and the second, conversely, the `what's not special about me' argument. Both of these arguments are skeptical about whether there is any reason for value to exist apart from or in relation toan agent.

The first argument that we will examine is what I have called the `what's so special about me' claim. This has been given a metaphysical twist by Martin Gough; and while I am not going to outline my own theory of the self, I will have to defend a few hopefully common sense claims regarding what exactly is this thing (self) that predicates adhere to.

Gough attempts to show that egoism is incoherent because the egoist's claim to acquire a future good is inconsistent with his being who he is now, and the person he will be in the future. While Gough is not skeptical regarding the fact that an actual body persists through time, he does say:

There must be a time lapse between the inception in the consciously realized intention of an act and the conclusion in the fulfillment of its effects: I cannot succeed in deciding to act egoistically, acting thus and being affected by the results of the act all in the same instant of time. A further necessary condition is that I must intend (and thus be motivated) to act egoistically: acts which just happen to benefit me without being so intended cannot be called egoistic. Overall, I, whom or whatsoever I am, and as myself in the future at that, must be the envisaged beneficiary in the content of the intention, as a necessary condition for both that intention and the respective act to be egoistic (p.2).

So far so good: in order to have egoism we need necessary conditions, such as the agent must intend the act, and be the beneficiary of the act. Yet, Gough claims that there is no good reason for assuming the egoist argument that his desires supercede any other's desires. This seems to be based on the fact that "[i]dentity in its logic does not admit of degrees: it is all or nothing; I am either the same, identical person from one time to the next, or I am not the same as a given person...."(p. 7). So the major problem to be considered here is that of personal identity; if Gough can drive a wedge between the self the agent now with the future self, then he will be able to show that egoists cannot benefit themselvesfor their future selves are not who they are now. For instance, Gough claims that it is possible to have amnesia and not remember all of the particulars that make up his self; he would think of himself— but as two "fundamentally different thoughts, as a self-conscious subject and as a body persisting over time" (p.12). This thought experiment supports a conceptual dualism of the self— between self-consciousness and personal identity. It is only the latter notion that is truly realin the sense of persisting through time. And it is this gap that "is crucial to the critique of egoistic motivation" (ibid).

Gough though must assume a reductionist theory of the self, in order to make his argument work: " Reductionist Personal Identity is correct in that it can still provide an account of what constitutes persistence over time with a less determinate metaphysics whilst assuming the non-existence of immaterial entities" (p.12). With this reduction in hand, Gough asserts that the egoist is under a delusion, brought on by the imagination, that the agent is not just a present -consciousness of outside things, but that he is an actual immaterial thing with goals that can be obtained by himself in the future. He says that we may think that "being told that I rather anyone else shall be run over puts a whole new perspective on the event" (p. 18); but this is incorrect for:

Successful egoism would require that egoistic intentions be effectuated as they are intended: acts which happen to benefit the agent without being so intended cannot be called egoistic. For the egoistic intentions to be effectuated, the beneficiary would have to be the same persisting Cartesian ego that does the intending. Because there is no such thing which can be identified persisting over time, egoism is impossible. The set of conditions which would be sufficient for egoism does not hold (p.19).

So, Gough's novel argument is that the egoist is committed to affirming something that is logically impossiblenamely, that he can acquire something for himself, when he will no longer be the same self (except in a material way). And, paradoxically, it would seem that the egoist ends up being an altruist! He states "[a]ll self-interested action in practice becomes...a limiting case of altruism, qualitatively the same, but circumstantially directed at benefitting one identified person as one amongst others and not at benefitting any others in fact" (p.20). So the budding egoist, in acting for his own ends, is metaphysically forced to be an altruist—that is just the nature of persisting through time!

Now where should we start with Gough's high- falutin' claims? It would seem that we could try to say that there are cases of action where there is no difference between end and meansthey happen simultaneously; such a view is often taken against Hume's division between cause and effect, by stating that they are contemporaneous and not discrete. And Gough does consider this claim that the present self succeeds in acting for itself in the same instant—so that there is no "lapse of time which would make the future self the beneficiary, the lapse which I have claimed is one of the difficulties for egoism." (p.23). Though such a claim is possible, is it usual? In certain cases, such as when we are told to jump out of the way, we just do; this seems to be almost instantaneous. But is it egoistically motivated? Gough says that it may not beit seems to be more of a reaction done out of reflex rather than intention. Yet there are bigger problems for Gough.

The main problem with Gough's claim is that it is a very sophisticated argument; and by this I mean that it is an argument constructed to dismiss some of our self-evident experiencethat we persist over timewith a Rube Goldberg complexity. So it conflicts with the factswith the experience that I have of being a person who has intended things and acquired those ends; or, even with acts that are not intended, such as (ie) shell-shock, which can affect a soldier years after a war is over. There is much empirical psychology that supports the view that certain things happen to us which are imprinted on somethingcall it a self and are catalysts later. Gough's case of the amnesiac is a rare case; even if it is sufficient to drive a wedge between the body's persistence and the self's identity, it is not sufficient to show that this self does not make all the difference. If I changed consciousness, then I would no longer be the person that I am. So in the metaphysical sense, there is a big reason to consider one's own intra-mental being as important(psychiatrist Antony Storr quipped that he always found that his patients wanted have certain characteristics of othersbeauty, talents, etc.but they never wanted actually to be someone elsethat other person) for the simple reason that we are who we are. There is a partiality that we are partial to!

The other side of this argument, the `what's not so special about me' claim, has been defended by very few. It might be hard to find some serious adherents to critique, although Stirner and Nietzsche might qualify (at least in some of their moods). Such a view that I am talking of is known as egotism or an undue concern with oneself. (To be sure the uses of egoism and egotism overlapbut there is a general distinction, as noted in my Oxford Current English Dictionary egotism has the connotation of self-conceit, while egoism is said to be systematic self-interest, or self-interest as the basis of moral behaviour). Perhaps it is solipsism, but not necessarily so; for the `megalomaniac' may think the way he does, yet not really think that the world depends on him (his consciousness). This agent may not have any self-restraint, and may be harmful to othersyet he thinks that this is his `right'. The only rule is, as Alister Crowley said, `do what thou wilt.' The major problem with this view is that, practically speaking, the agent does not have the ability to do whatever he wants; indeed, as Hobbes pointed out, if you act this way you will probably die quite quicklyeven the weakest can kill the strongest (pull the trigger). So it will not be prudent to do what ever you wantbut nor is this retributive factor the only consideration when we act. And this suggests that there is some real goodness (or at least empathy) in peoplesome social cohesionthat leads them out of any `state of nature'. But also,

...the very vicious, those who live a life of aggression against others, whether through physical violence or through psychological manipulation, are also radically lacking in the willingness to be the autonomous agents of their own lives and establish an independent relationship to reality.... For the more they aggress and scheme against others, the less they live lives of their own; and the more they succeed in rationalizing their behaviour to themselves, the less they see a reason to make lives of their own. Their callous attitude toward others' well-being is reflected in alike attitude toward themselves, an attitude of indifference to their moral selves, their characters. Thus, they rob themselves not only of the pleasures of living lives of their own, but also of the pleasures of friendship (Badhwar p.254 emphasis added).

So in an interesting sense the egotistical person (perhaps) is not really living a life of his own; rather, in keeping up with the Joneses, or what-have-you, he is not concentrating on himself. While some would see him as the quintessential egoist, it is precisely a self which he lacks— that which is autonomous and judges things according to some standards, not simply anything that he desires. So anyone who insists that they can just do whatever the heck they like will probably be considered insane, and a threat to rational agents (egoist or altruist) who wish to act according to laws, because they have some real values worth protecting.

Now I will turn to the more serious objection to egoism, which is based on the claim that it is logically inconsistent because it cannot meet the demands of a principle of reason: universalizability. This claim has been made most famously by GE Moore:

What, then, is meant by `my own good'? In what sense can a thing be good for me? It is obvious, if we reflect, that the only thing which can be belong to me, which can be mine, is something which is good; and not the fact that it is good. When, therefore, I talk of anything I get as `my own good', I must mean either that the thing I get is good, or that my possessing it is good. In both cases it is only the thing or the possession of it which is mine, and not the goodness of that thing or that possession (p.98).

He continues:

If, therefore, it is true of any single man's `interest' or `happiness' that it ought to be his sole ultimate end, this can only mean that man's `interest' or `happiness' is the sole good, the Universal Good, and the only thing that anybody ought to aim at. What egoism holds, therefore, is that each man's happiness is the sole good— that a number of different things are each of them the only good thing there is an absolute contradiction! (P.99)

So in the first case, the egoist is committed to assuming a kind of `Midas touch' theory of value, as Mack calls it (p.85). Moore believes that the egoist must hold to a subjectivist account of value, where what is of value is made so by his desires. Moore believes that value is something that can only be possessed by the agent—not made by him. And secondly, the egoist holds that this value is (for each person) the sole good; but this would be obviously contradictory (for Moore), for then he would have to hold that there are multiple universals corresponding to `Goodness" for each agenteven when they cancel each other out by contradiction. The two claims are intertwined —the subjectivist claim is related to not holding universalizability because value is agent-relative and hence not agent-neutral— but I shall deal with the latter claim of universality first, and then proceed to the more complicated view of subjectivism. These two points seem to correspond roughly to either side of the Euthyphro dilemma: either the good (or what is of value) is so because one says it is, or one says it is good because it is good.

The Universalizability principle (hereafter U.) is supposed to be a principle of reason, hence it stands apart from any particular substantive moral code. David Norton quotes the following definitional claim about U. R.M. Hare says that U. is the requirement "of finding some action to which one is prepared to commit oneself, and which at the same time one is prepared to accept as exemplifying a principle of action binding on anyone in like circumstances"(p.519). There are obvious problems with the Kantian version of U. called the categorical imperative. Kant thought that all empirical differences (esp. desires) between persons were nugatory; when we make moral judgements we are supposed to ignore these contingencies. Yet there are problems, as Norton points out, with disregarding empirical facts in the imperative and allowing them in the maxim (p.520). By allowing them in the maxim Kant seems to be granting them importance. And here we have the real problem with U. How are we to know which facts are admissible in making judgements? It is clear that simply sticking to the Categorical Imperative is hopeless: there is the case of the Nazi who knocks on the door of the person hiding Jews in his basement; should he abide by the `do not lie' Imperative and tell the Nazi, or should he break it? Obviously contingencies empirical qualifications, ceteris paribus clauses-- do matter. And what kind of qualifications? For instance, Hare admits that inclinations are important with U. These would certainly be empirical but, moreover, they open the door to partiality.

With this partiality consideration in mind, we can now see that to rule out the agent's interests in moral judgements is a mistake. Hare's point was that the apathetic, or purely impartial agent, would not care about the U. criterion. As Den Uyl notes:

It may just be that values are the sorts of things that need to be put into practice or achieved by concrete individual persons if they are to be values at all, and this would suggest that agent-neutrality is not only not a logical consequence of the principle of universalizability, but also a real impediment to the advancement of value (p.28).

Den Uyl is here suggesting that there is some essential connexion between the agent qua individual agent and value. I will call this (after Mack and Den Uyl) agent-relative value in contradistinction to agent-neutral value. And they are defined as follows:

Agent-neutral value=
def. "Describes any value, reason or ranking V for which `if a person P1 is justified in holding V, then so are P2Pn under appropriately similar conditions....On an agent-neutral conception it is impossible to weight more heavily or at all, V, simply because it is one's own value'" (Rasmussen p.473).

Agent-relative value=def."Describes any value, ranking, or reason V for which its description includes an `essential reference to the person for whom the value exists, for whom the ranking is correct, or who has the reason....' Thus, a good, G1, for a person, P1, is agent-relative if and only if its distinctive presence in a world, W1, is a basis or reason for P1 ranking W1 over W2, even though G1 may not be a basis or reason for any other person ranking W1 over W2 "(Rasmussen ibid).

This view of agent-neutrality seems to be what is required by U. principles. And a value is said to be agent-neutral if its "description does not include an essential reference to the person for whom the value exists, for whom the ranking is correct, or who has the reason" (Mack p. 84). And this does seem to correspond to what Moore said about value in his second comment, namely that the agent's value can only be a value if the agent's possession of it is somehow inessential. But again, if the agent is to be impartial how can he value anything at all— it would seem that inclination or desire must have something to do with valuation. But as soon as this is said, it would seem that the view of agent-relative value collapses into subjectivism: that value depends wholly on the agent's desires. But is this the whole story? Below I will try to outline a view of objectivity that allows us to sail safely past the Scylla of agent-neutrality and the Charybdis of subjectivism.

Tibor Machan argues that while objective ethical claims might seem subjective (from the standard view of objectivity), they can still be agent-relative and interpersonal since they are standards that anyone with human reasoning can judge to be true or false. His prime example is the fact that an agent (Harry) can have his head measured for a hat by some `inter- subjective' standard. For instance, the agent's head is a contingent fact, a fact for Harry, but the method by which we measure it is graspable by all rational persons. Machan admits that this method is usually not allowed in ethics, as it would be in science, because it is claimed that Harry's `hat fittingness' is relative to him. But why should this kind of standard be ignored because it is based partly on the agent's contingent facts? Again, I can only stress that objectivity need not require universality in applicability. As Machan notes,

Objectivity lies in the means of proving or grounding some claim, not the range of its applicability.... That is the point of stressing objectivity, to note the connection between what we judge, claim, think, etc., with what is the case, with reality.... The issue of universality comes into play only in that the claim that is supposedly objective could be established to the satisfaction of anyone (in the universe of those) who can understand the standard (1998 p.446).

So it is the standard, or means, of validating some claim that falls under the rubric of `objectivity', but this is not subjectivity because moral claims here are not apart from any particular agent, qua egoist. This claim is contentious to be sure, so it will require more than the denial of agent-relativity through a new notion of objectivity; next we shall critically examine Gauthier's claims that this position would collapse into subjectivism, and Nagel's that such a position would need to turn out to be agent-neutral in some respect, or else we would be left `morally adrift'.

David Gauthier has objected persuasively that absolutist and objective notions of value (or the good) collapse into subjective and relative respectively. He points out that Mill famously tried to argue from the premiss that each person's happiness is a good to that person to the (absolutist) conclusion,that the general happiness is a good to all persons. This is a case of the fallacy of composition. And such an argument would seem to apply to the view defended here, namely that values can be both objective and agent-relative. He says,

If there is pressure against a conception of value at once subjective and absolute, there is also a pressure against a conception both objective and relative....For the objectivity of each characteristic perfection, its role as a norm or standard against which each individual member of the kind may be judged, has been supposed to depend on considering each perfection to be a manifestation, appropriate to its particular circumstances, of a single universal good. The seemingly relative goods of the several kinds are really facets of an absolute good. The demands of objectivity thus force an apparently relative conception of value into an absolutist mould (1986 p.53).

So according to Gauthier, any attempt to make values both agent-relative and objective will be forced by traditional objectivity into `an absolutist mould'. And the absolutist mould is the attempt to make values derived from individual preferences into a generalizable good for all. This either suffers from the fallacy of composition, or seemingly becomes the agent-neutral position we have tried to stray away from. It seems that Gauthier has shown that this kind of value slips into subjectivism because what is good here (health, happiness, etc) is not dependent on the agent! As Mack notes regarding Gauthier, [t]he fulfillment possessed by or located in [the agent] is simply a `facet' of an agent-neutral good" (p.98). Here all the problems of agent-neutral value re-enter. So again hope seems dashed on the rocks of the Euthyphro dilemma, where we must admit that value is simply agent-relative, wholly subjective.

Yet the other shore beckons where we will again have to face the claim, via Nagel, that practical reasons can be wholly agent-neutral; Nagel has argued that agent-neutral reasons can become reasons for action. He has the example of learning Italian in The Possibility of Altruism. If an agent will be in Italy in six weeks then he will probably need to know how to speak Italian. But this is a reason that will not come into existence for another six weeks; so what reason does he now have to be motivated to learn the language? Nagel says that such reasons do not have to be waited for in order for them to motivate an agent (p.58). The reason then for learning Italian has a kind of agent-neutrality about it. Rather than waiting until one gets off the plane and be motivated by not being able to speak to the taxi driver, an agent can have motivated reasons that are agent-neutral: the practical judgement can be seen to be apart from the agent, and yet it has some motivational content, given the way the agent feels now. So, there is a sense that we can make practical judgements now that are objective, or agent-neutral, and also have them be motivational.

For Gauthier the view of egoism outlined here would fail because it cannot be both agent-relative and objective. Objectivity requires some universal standard that forces the agents to realize that things are good outside of their intentions, or that they are not (which is what he argues for). And for Nagel our ability to reason in tenseless way is a fact that cannot be ignored: it must lead us to conclude that altruism is a possibility because, even though it is parasitic upon practical reason, such practical reasoning can lead to agent-neutral values, hence to actions performed just for the sake of someone else. While I too support the possibility of altruism, of actions performed just for the sake of another, I do not think that Nagel's argument works because he conflates practical and factual reasons. For instance, as we have seen, Nagel tries to prove that prudential reasons have a timeless (or tenseless) element, namely that they can be realized to not benefit one's present self, yet still have motivational force for that self. While it does seem true that reasons can motivate, what does not seem true is that the practical reasons can be in any real sense agent-neutral. The reasons can motivate if they are related to the agent's nexus (elaborated below). So while I may have a reason to learn Italian, why do I have reason to go to Italy anyway? Nagel drops the context when switching from practical to factual reasons; what is very important in such an example, for practical reason, would be the goals that I have in going to Italy. The reasons could be spelled out in a purely formal wayand they have to be—as can be the `good' but the actual value of the good is `instantiated' in the way it stands to the agent.

Den Uyl elaborates this point with the example of G. Gordon Liddy, who used to try to prove his machismo by eating rats and holding his hand on a hot stove. Den Uyl says that, (contra Nagel) the practical reasons can be separate from the factual ones. The truth of the reason can be considered agent-neutral in the sense that the stove will burn flesh no matter what the agent thinks (Den Uyl p.31). But also the prudential or egoistic reason may require that one ignore this factual reason. Yet, as Den Uyl continues,

It is important to realize that the reason does not fail to be reason because it has been trumped by some weightier reason. Rather, it is not a reason because it does not fit into the nexus of reasons appropriate to that individual and situation. Perhaps when G. Gordon Liddy is baking cookies, he is careful not to touch the hot stove. The factual reasons remain true in any situation, but the practical reasons do not (p.32).

So the practical reason for an agent may be relative to his goals, and not really independent in the sense Nagel would think; Nagel needs to ask of his agent `why go to Italy in the first place?'and to do this is to realize, I think, that this reason depends on the agent's nexus. Unfortunately, Nagel just asserts that "...if practical reasoning exists at all, it is natural to suppose that the motivational content of its conclusions is present in ordinary practical judgements to begin with" (1978, p.65). But in nowise are these practical judgements based on any feelingsonly reason. Yet notice, while Nagel has defined altruism as benevolence, his theory here cannot really account for benevolence as a moral practice because this would require him to admit feelings or emotions as foundational (which he argues against pp.3-6). Hence, Nagel avoids a regress objection by just asserting that practical reasons include justifications for doing those actions (p. 65). But to do this is to make practical reasons somewhat odd because they are intrinsically motivationaland this is the agent-neutral aspect that seems so objectionable.

Now that we have dealt with Nagel's position, we can deal with Gauthier's criticism that agent-relative positions which attempt to be objective will slide into absolutismor the view that what is good is part of some Universal `Goodness'. This does not follow, because what is good can be established apart from what the agent desires. And if this is true, the agent may `see' that the thing is good, yet not value it. Just because something can be established as good does not mean that the agent will value it. I may realize that becoming a baker is good and productive, yet I have no personal interest in becoming a baker.

The other side of Gauthier's criticism, indeed what he was arguing for, was the claim that there are no objective standards which can be had to decide truly what to do. An agent on Gauthier's account has no real objective standards at all. Rather, as he says,

A good eating apple is thus one that is commonly or usually preferred for eating. But although committed to this standpoint by the language of evaluation, one is not committed to it either as a measure of one's preferences or as a standard for one's own choices. In saying that a McIntosh is a good eating apple, you do not imply that you are an apple fancier, or that you enjoy McIntoshes more than other apples, or that you would or should choose a McIntosh to eat. A McIntosh is good, relative to the standpoint presupposed in the use of `good', but this value does not afford a norm for choice from any other standpoint (1986 pp.53-4).

While the logic of the language involved would seem to suggest that one can tell if an apple is a good one (generalize from one's preference), the evaluation that it is good is no more than a personal preference. For Gauthier, there are no constraints on preferring (such as happiness, utility,etc.) except that they must be `considered' (in order for them to be rational, consistent). Unfortunately, Gauthier's position cannot be fully countered here; but as promised I will try to outline the nexus view and show how this might lead us to conclude that there are some standards for choice.

While we cannot counter the fully subjectivist position here, since it would require another paper to argue against Moorean claims of the naturalistic fallacy and open -question arguments, I will try to outline a notion of a nexus— a "set of habits, endowments, circumstances, talents, interests, histories, beliefs, and the like which descriptively characterize an individual and which he brings to any new situation" (Den Uyl p.170). It is this bunch of `personal goods' that the agent must match to certain moral goods, or standards; although it might be more precise to say that the moral value comes out of this mix, since there is nothing intrinsically valuablebut nor is there any (moral) value that is made by the individual person. So on the view proposed here, the agent cannot just value whatever he wishes; he will need to take into account both his nexus and the facts of the situation. These provide a corralling effect, in that they constrain action by allowing for some `generic' goods. Yet these are not absolutist goods as Gauthier argues because, while they are genericpotentially good for anyone they have to be actualized. So in this respect my argument does not suffer from the fallacy of composition (by making the presumption that individual goods come together to form the single good), nor does it lapse into subjectivism in that it keeps some standard for action. So Gauthier's apple could be deemed a good one not only in one's judgement solely, but also by the facts of the case. (Of course I would be the first to warn against interpreting this to mean that there is some scalae natura that helps one to find one's place in the big picture; this metaphysical hierarchy need be no part of the theory here—rather, `order' itself is based on what facts are important.)

So the theory of egoism outlined here requires that persons pursue their best interests; and this will be determined partly by the personal facts of the person (the nexus) and also the `generic' goods that apply to all persons. But what is of value will be agent-relative because even if one pursues some generic good, he will have to make it his own—it must be instantiated as a value in relation to an agent. One objection to this position is that in saying that good is generic, the theory seems to be underdetermined—it does not tell people how to live their lives. But as Rasmussen notes, this could be to egoism's advantage because it does not try to produce universal prescriptions for everyone's behaviour (p.476; cf. Den Uyl p.176). There have been many attempts (Den Uyl notes) to reconcile freedom and virtue—such as Gewirth and Habermas—but always at the formal/ impersonal level (p.266). The theory of egoism here outlined is a kind of personalism which, even though there may be some general generic goods for all (happiness, or life), is always concerned with the conditional nature of prescriptions. Even the most general generic goods could be rejected in certain situations (such as "If you want to go on living then do x, y and z". Perhaps the person in the concentration camp has good reason to reject the antecedent here). Impersonalism may be fine for laws—interpersonal rules—because there are cases where we should admit no exception ( ie, murder); but, that aside, we need an ability to reason our way to the good life—a disposition I call `egoism'. This requires thought and, as Den Uyl notes:

Character development was not simply a sign of moral perfection, but perhaps more importantly it was an aid to intelligent living. To paraphrase Locke, most people are not Socrates and thus are not able to reason themselves into virtue. They need to be aided by habituation. Yet an emphasis upon character development (or appropriate habituation) is only called for within a theory that leaves a great deal to individual judgment. A duty ethic or a consequentialist ethic offers little room for real judgment. In the one case, the logic of the rules decides for us. In the other, the calculus cranks out the solutions (p.178).

So while this egoist theory may be considered underdetermined, it also has the benefit of allowing individuals room to judge for themselves what to do. There are many goods or desires of others that the egoist will not want to choose, because this would violate his own personal integrity; and, as this essay has tried to show, this would make for an inconsistency in his self, and his decisions. And if the egoist were to try to act on some impersonalistic egoist principle, he would be treating himself as another. So, as with the definitions in the first section, the egoist to satisfy the sufficient condition of egoism--must truly benefit himself. This requires consistency, knowledge of ends, and chosen behaviour as necessary conditions. But to satisfy the sufficient condition of acquiring true values depends on the agent's nexus and the facts of the context or situation—no small task.


[The proud man] must be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one's feelings is a mark of timidity), and must care more for the truth than for what people will think, and must speak and act openly....He must be unable to make his life revolve around another, unless it be a friend....Such, then is the proud man; the man who falls short of him is unduly humble, and the man who goes beyond him is vain....For the unduly humble man, being worthy of good things, robs himself of what he deserves, and seems to have something bad about him from the fact that he does not think himself worthy of good things, and seems not to know himself; else he would have desired the things he was worthy of, since these were good (Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1124b1125a).

Much of the point of this essay has been to re-admit (in a positive way) the self into the moral realm. This has been accomplished by a theory of egoism that eschews agent-neutrality, impartialism, and other-regardedness in morals. The definitions laid down here are justified because they (a) allow for normative versions of egoism and altruism, and (b) because they distinguish one term from the other in a clear way: on sacrifice. This has not always been done, as with common usage, where egoism and egotism are often conflated--and altruism is considered to be, essentially, benevolence (for a defense of the claim that egoism cannot be a rationalization for meanness, or callousness see Machan 1978). This essay has attempted not only to dispel such conflations, but also to show that normative egoism can be logically coherent. Traditional critiques have focused on the theory's susceptibility to U. criticisms; but I hope to have shown that there is more room in the moral universe than the adherents of U. criterion believe there to be.

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