Chapter 6 Egoism


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So far we have examined a few different theories about the basis of ethics. Each of these theories proved inadequate for one reason or another, in spite of the fact that each one is popular. Philosophers are kind of hard to please. The failure of these theories can, however, tell us something about what an adequate ethics might look like. The first lesson we can learn from their failure is that ethical principles cannot simply be based on authority. It does not matter whether this authority is the authority of culture, a divine creator of laws, or nature – appealing to such sources of ethical principles fails to really provide a reason to accept those principles as legitimate. Authority may get us to act, for fear of punishment or ostracism if we fail to do what the authorities want. But authority alone will never be enough to convince us that what the authorities want us to do is right. In order to be convinced we will need to see some convincing reasons.

Providing reasons to back up our claims is exactly what we do when we are attempting to be rational. This simple observation is the point of departure for our next four approaches to ethics. These are known as egoism, social contract theory, utilitarianism and Kantian ethics. All of these theories are products of an important period of intellectual history known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a period (which began in roughly the mid-18th century, and ended as a formal intellectual movement in roughly the mid-nineteenth century, even if its ideals are still with us in many ways) in which intellectuals and other public figures throughout the world embraced the idea that reason alone was capable of providing guidance for human affairs. According to such advocates of the Enlightenment as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, David Hume, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant, among many others, careful and rational investigation of the world and the evidence that could be found in the world could provide a solid basis for our social lives as well as scientific knowledge. There are considerable differences among the ideas of the major figures of the Enlightenment. However, all of them shared a basic trust in the power of reasoning to solve human problems. For egoists, social contractarians, utilitarians and advocates of Kantian ethics, rationality is the bottom line and ethics, if it is to move beyond the arbitrariness and prejudice embedded in the traditional conceptions of morality we have been considering, must embrace rationality. In the next four chapters we will be examining different answers to the question, “What would a rational ethics look like?” To get a sense of the territory ahead here are the answers that each of the next four approaches to ethics offers:

  • Egoism: It would not exist since rationality requires us to put ourselves first.
  • Social Contract Theory: A rational ethics would be based on an agreement about what the basic rules of the social game should be.
  • Utilitarianism: Ethics would be an effective method for attaining the common good.
  • Kantian ethics: A rational ethics would provide a set of universal principles that all free agents must follow.