Egoism and Conflicting Interests
Posted on August 4, 2017 — 3 Minutes Read
Egoism, whether in its descriptive or normative forms, suggests that our self-regarding best interest is and ought to be the only reason for action. It formulates morality on a single and simple metric of self-interest that seems impossible to refute. Over the years, however, philosophers have identified inconsistency and contradiction, between the two forms of egoism.
Terrance C. McConnell noted, in The Argument from Psychological Egoism to Ethical Egoism, that in its normative form, egoism, requires one to do what is in one’s best interest. Yet, because people can and do have false beliefs about what is in their best interests, it may require one to do, what one does not believe to be but in fact it is, due to false beliefs, in one’s best interest. This seems to be inconsistent with the conjunction of egoism, in its descriptive form, and with Immanuel Kant’s principle of ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. Richmond Campbell showed also, in A Short Refutation of Ethical Egoism, that if in situation, it is in the best interest of multiple normative egoists, pursuing a mutually exclusive option, normative egoists will be required to, except for the one who successfully attains the option so demanded, do what is impossible. This seems to be again at odd with the ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ principle, or the common-sense idea that no one should be required to do what cannot be done. By failing to resolve conflict of interests, it also shows that egoism does not seem to fulfil the goal of a normative moral theory in guiding human behaviour. Most importantly, perhaps, egoism’s formulation of self-interest seems to be wrongfully narrow.
Kin altruism is an evolutionary strategy employed by Homo Sapiens, and many other organisms, to increase reproductive fitness in natural selection. It motivates behaviour that favours the survival of our kin, and our species as a whole, even at a cost to our own selves. Through years of biological evolution, this drive is hardcoded in our DNA, and urges us to concern the interest of others as well as our own. Each of us, in the society today, is identified with many roles in life: son, sister, father, an expert in your trade, an enthusiast of your passion, a part of your community, a citizen of your country, a member of the species Homo Sapiens, and as we are transforming into a multi-planet species, an inhabitant of the planet Earth. All of these roles are as relevant to us as our bone-and-flesh self, and they bear with them, different agendas. All of these agendas are worth pursuing, and in doing so, there will unavoidably be conflicts between them.
Perhaps, a more fitting descriptive and normative moral theory should capture this wide range of interests of our various roles in life, and provide guidance in resolving conflicts that at times arise while pursuing these competing interests. It is admirable in egoism’s attempt to understand, explain and most importantly guide human behaviour by resorting to a theoretically simple, and deeply intrinsic, human drive of self-interest. Formulating a theory with a wrongfully narrow notion of the self and neglecting the wide range of roles and interests that we bear, which may render us in situations rationally irrational, will not fare far in the journey to understanding human behaviour or morality at all.