Monday 10/28

Contractarianism I





After handing back the Exam II and Case I, today we took up the view that ethics is just a matter of self-interest as a precis to contractarianism. The resulting theory, Ethical Egoism, is popular among those in business and economics.

First, though, permit me to suggest that if you are unhappy about your exam score, you really should make the trek to my office (FC-280, upstairs from Starbucks), so we can discuss how to do better on the exams. We're getting to the point in the semester where the weight of each exam and case grows, such that there is less and less room for making mistakes or not having a solid grasp of the material. So I encourage those of you who are discouraged to please come visit. I may be able to help.

As for the cases, the grader was fairly lenient, for the most part looking for whether you had answered all of the questions. I notice, however, that some never submitted the first case at all. I'm not sure what the strategy is there, but do note that the next case will be worth 100 points.

Back, then, to Ethical Egoism: interestingly, it passes clarity. It is important to realize, though, that it passes clarity only if the theory can piggy-back on a theory of best interests. Presumably, a theory of best interests should be provided by psychologists, biologists, and sociologists.

It is also important to understand that Ethical Egoism is not a subjectivist theory like Simple Ethical Subjectivism. It is possible, for example, to be completely mistaken about what is in one's own best interests; children often are, and adults are sometimes mistaken as well. Indeed, for some what it means to be an adult, morally speaking, is that one has learned what is in one's best interests and thus is able to take charge of the direction of their own lives. This is crucial: the truth conditions on the implications of Simple Ethical Subjectivism are subjective, but the truth conditions on the implications of Ethical Egoism are objective a posteriori. Simple Ethical Subjectivism should never be confused with Ethical Egoism.

In some respects Ethical Egoism appears to have a good shot at being true. It does not make the the dramatic errors found with Simple Ethical Subjectivism. It is possible to be mistaken about one's best interests, so it is possible to be mistaken about what is morally right. It is possible to have moral disagreement in the sense that it is possible to have debates about what is in one's best interests.

Despite Ethical Egoism's promise, it founders on Reflective Equilibrium. First, Ethical Egoism implies that there can be conflicting moral judgments since there can be genuine conflicts of interest. The Ethical Egoist, then, must be committed to the view that there are true statements of the form "X is morally right and X is not morally right".

Yet if there is a moral fact of the matter, then a single action will either be morally right or not, but not both. The intuition is that there is simply a fact of the matter about, say, whether killing for sport is morally wrong or morally right. Of course, we might have disagreements about whether killing for sport is morally wrong or morally right. But having disagreements is a problem having to do with our not knowing whether killing for sport is morally wrong or morally right. Ethical Egoism commits us to the view that not only can we disagree, in such cases where we disagree there is a fact of the matter such that killing for sport is morally wrong and, paradoxically, there is a fact of the matter that killing for sport is morally right.

Even more problematic than the Conflict Argument, the Discrimination Argument points out that Ethical Egoism requires that we arbitrarily--i.e., without good reason--distinguish between people. That is to say, Ethical Egoism requires that one discriminate morally between oneself and everyone else. Discrimination is fine if there is good reason for it--e.g., blind air traffic controllers or deaf telephone operators--but it must be rejected if there is no good reason for it--e.g., sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, or what have you. Ethical Egoism requires that we discriminate between people without good reason, which is an intolerable result.

Thus Ethical Egoism, understood as a moral normative theory, can be rejected for want of any good reasons for it and two very good (reflective equilibrium) reasons against it--viz., the Conflict Argument and the Discrimination Argument. So far as descriptive ethical theories go, though, Ethical Egoism fairs pretty well despite having failed miserably as a prescriptive, or normative, ethical theory. Note that normative ethical theories tell us how we ought to behave, while descriptive ethical theories tell us how we actually behave, whether or not we should so behave. Psychologists and anthropologists develop descriptive ethical theories. Philosophers worry about normative ethical theories. At any rate, it just seems to be the case that most people in fact decide what is the right or best thing to do on the basis of what will be in their (perceived) best interests. It is in noticing this fact, and the problems that arise from it, that brought Thomas Hobbes to grasping an entirely different approach to moral normative theory, so-called contractarianism. We begin there next time.