Colin McGinn on Egoism

 Posted by on 16 September 2007 at 4:30 pm  Uncategorized
Sep 162007

Well-respected philosopher Colin McGinn claims to have “dispatched” egoism with the following argument:

The topic this week was ethical egoism. What a terrible theory it is! An action is right if and only if it’s in your own self interest. That means that helping others, with no benefit to self, is immoral. Rubbish. Particularly pathetic is the argument that apparently atruistic actions are really egoistic, since you get pleasure from doing good. This just conflates the object of a want with its consequences. You might as well argue that economic actions, like buying a television, are really altruistic, because someone else benefits, namely the people you buy it from. Motives are of several kinds: egoistic, altruistic, malicious, and self-destructive.

Note that the bulk of the paragraph is concerned with psychological egoism. That’s not surprising: I’ve noticed that philosophers often conflate ethical with psychological egoism. They persuasively argue that altruistic action is possible, then take that as an adequate refutation of egoism generally. Well, it’s not. That only refutes psychological egoism, not ethical egoism. Refuting ethical egoism would require showing that altruistic action is morally obligatory, not merely possible.

However, McGinn does offer an argument against egoism. He claims:

P1. Ethical egoism implies that helping others, with no benefit to self, is immoral.
P2. That’s rubbish.
C. Ethical egoism is false.

Is that seriously supposed to be any kind of refutation of egoism? P2 is nothing but a colorful assertion of the truth of altruism. Obviously, you don’t refute theory X simply by asserting that contrary theory Y is true. That’s blatant question-begging. What’s needed is a proof of the morality of altruism. Why is it morally right — or rather, morally obligatory — to sacrifice oneself to others? No, I won’t accept the standard claim that altruism just seems obviously true. That’s not an argument: it’s a confession of faith.

Alternatively, McGinn might attempt to refute the best available argument for egoism, namely that found in Ayn Rand’s essay “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness. That’s a dense essay, so for the academic philosopher, I’d also recommend Tara Smith’s development of the same argument in Viable Values.

I’d like to see the academic critics of egoism engage those arguments. Right now, the standard arguments against egoism found in introductory ethical texts are egregious strawmen. Those texts claim that the egoist would be obliged to cheat, steal, and murder for personal gain, that the egoist couldn’t have friends or care about others, that the egoist cannot coherently advocate his ethics since he should want others to be altruists, and so on. Such criticisms radically misunderstand the nature and demands of egoism. Most commonly, they confuse egoism with hedonism, even though the pursuit the objective requirements of a lifetime of robust flourishing would be quite different in character from the pursuit of maximal pleasure or the attempt to satisfy as many random desires as possible.

Philosophers should be able to do better in their criticisms — if egoism is as absurd as often claimed.

Update #1: I posted the above remarks in the comments of Colin McGinn’s post. So you can find some responses to it, plus further comments by me, on his web site.

Update #2: Colin McGinn decided to delete two polite comments of mine critical of his claims. So I’m done with the debate: I can’t argue if I can’t criticize that which I find objectionable. I’ve posted my two deleted comments in the NoodleFood comments.

Update #3: The debate on McGinn’s blog has gotten completely out of control. I’m particularly disgusted with the ad hominem charges of “cultism” from McGinn and his supporters. As anyone can see for themselves, the Objectivists in the debate have argued their side by appeal to reasons, not appeal to authority. Whether you find those arguments persuasive or not, and I do think some of them wrong, mere tenacity in debate is not cultism! (If it is, then most Americans are cultists of some variety or other, e.g. for denying that the earth is flat.) Moreover, I notice that McGinn has yet to admit that his original argument against egoism is rubbish, yet he’s now tossing off general (and unsupported) remarks about the poor argumentation of his opponents. That’s not cool. When I originally wrote this post, I hoped for a civil and friendly debate with McGinn. Oh well.

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