Reason as the Leading Motive

Refuting Egoism

Posted by Jerry on September 17, 2007

Colin McGinn, a prominent philosopher, made a ridiculously brief “refutation” of ethical egoism, and appears to smugly consider the case closed! Here is his argument in full:

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.

So far this term I’ve dispatched the three most popular ethical theories in America today–relativism, divine command theory, and egoism. It wasn’t difficult work. So people go through their lives with ethical ideas that are patently erroneous. A few classes in high school would suffice to put them right, but somehow it never happens. You aren’t supposed to criticize people’s ethical opinions. That’s sad.

Diana Hsieh offers a swift and apt response to such a shoddy job of an argument in her post.

What’s more, I was simply baffled by this philosopher when in the ensuing comment thread he offered the example of “rape” as an egoistic act subsumed under the notion of “what best suits your interests”! Unbelievable.

Check out the comments for some interesting discussion and some evidence of how badly the concept of “egoism” is traditionally formulated, treated, and understood in philosophy.


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