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You’re not moral, you’re alive

The death of Socrates - Wikimedia commons

Staff Writer Sarah Stancombe discusses the allure of egoism – should we ditch being moral and focus on what is best for us?

‘Something is wrong, but all of a sudden, because you are doing it, it is right.’ (Gilligan, C. (1982) – Concepts of Self and Morality, p. 86)

This quote comes from a woman commenting on her experience with abortion, interviewed for a paper by C. Gilligan (1982). She honestly could not have put it better. It may be that her difficult decision was morally permissible in the first place, however, perhaps egoism can help us explain how she came to make this statement…

Throughout my university studies in moral philosophy at home in Australia and at KCL, I often find myself adjusting moral theories to justify my desires, rather than changing myself to fit a moral standard. After my first year of studying ethics, I remember deciding the easiest option was to accept myself as an immoral person and move on.

I am probably not alone in this. We learn about animal rights, but we don’t change our eating habits. We learn about poverty and charity, but we don’t donate more. Understanding the magnitude of these societal issues is overwhelming and exhausting. As broke students, it seems hopeless to invest in helping the less fortunate when the reasons for their plight are systemic. Capitalism is certainly not helping, as we focus on saving our money for ourselves, scared by horror stories of people living in poverty at the end of their lives, unable to afford the costs of nursing homes or in-home care.

I’m personally not convinced capitalism is the only reason for human selfishness. It seems that survival instincts are at play, telling us to fend for ourselves and ignore anything that limits this. So, what can philosophy tell us?

Simply put, we have a doctrine called egoism, which is pretty much what you’d think. There are a few forms, all revolving around the concept of self-interest. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines ethical egoism as the “[claim] that I ought to perform some action if and only if, and because, performing that action maximises my self-interest”. This is all about weighing up your actions. Imagine, for example, that your friend has advised you not to take on a new job, even though this job would benefit you and your future. If you take it, your friendship with her would be on the line. Do you value the job or the friendship more? Do you need the friendship and defence of this friend more in life than the benefits that the job could bring you?

Ethical egoism is often contrasted to psychological egoism, which states that each person has only one ultimate aim, and that is their own welfare. Taking this as true, it is to be expected that everyone will act only in pursuit of this aim. Have you ever been to a bake sale raising money for charity? Chances are you would never have donated to that charity if there had not been the added benefit of getting a sweet treat out of it. You probably buy sweet treats from Pret every day and all you’re really doing is donating to the capitalist machine. Is there anything that will actually make people change their behaviours in favour of being a more moral agent?

Taking on egoism comes with many real-world concerns. How people treat you could change, your reputation could be at stake, and if everyone was an egoist, how would be act towards each other?

In Plato’s “Republic”, Socrates argues against other characters in the text who forward the idea that being immoral is better than being moral. It sounds crazy on the surface, but what they mean is that the immoral person will do better for themself in life than the moral person would. On the other hand, Plato, and Socrates before him, were ‘moral egoists’ – meaning they believe ‘that it is good for me to do good for others.’ (Plato’s Republic, translated by Robin Waterfield, p. lviii)

However, these other characters may be onto something, suggesting that people should act immorally and put on a facade of being moral, to advance their self-interest while still gaining the trust and friendship of others.

It’s a sketchy solution to the issue of one’s reputation. Acting for yourself, but appearing to act for others, certainly sounds hypocritical and deceitful. Alas, I’d argue it’s not so different from how many of us act now. Moral egoism sounds good, but it is idealistic – in today’s society we face decisions regarding our finances and careers every day and ultimately we end up choosing what is best for ourselves and our futures.

Obviously, this has only been a very surface-level look at egoism, but I have wondered if there is any comfort to be found in philosophers giving a theoretical name of egoism to our selfishness. Alternatively, perhaps it feels uncomfortable to have your selfish nature debated and compared by philosophers. Perhaps like another woman in Gilligan’s paper, you might be “beginning to think all these virtues are really not getting [you] anywhere” (p. 93). Though nowadays it may be a cancellable offence to suggest that, I’m sure there are many people considering ditching their ‘moral’ upbringing in pursuit of a life lived to its fullest.


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