In Plato’s Republic and in Rachels’ Egoism and Moral Skepticism, both authors address two important facets of human morality: epistemologically objective. Ethical egoism is a normative claim, which states that moral beings ought to do what is in their best interests. Psychological egoism, on the other hand, is a descriptive claim that all moral beings can only act in their own self-interests, even when appearing to act in the interests of others. The difference between both claims lies in the fact that one is a normative claim and the other is a descriptive claim. A normative claim involves judging what people should do and creates a moral standard. A descriptive claim then, essentially describes the actions of moral beings and creates a moral standard based off their behavior. Due to the relatedness of both claims, I must first clearly distinguish the key features of each argument. In “Glaucon’s Challenge” Plato creates a long dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother, Glaucon. In his dialogue, Glaucon supports the view that people only act justly because they will believe it will help them attain beneficial ends for themselves and argues that human beings are not ethical egoists but rather psychological egoists. In Rachels’ essay, he attempts to distinguish between what psychological and moral egoism are and how inevitably neither are justified. Therefore, by drawing on the arguments from Glaucon and the claims discussed by Rachels, I will disprove the claim of ethical egoism and prove that human beings can, in fact, act solely for their own self-interest.
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First, I will begin by examining “Glaucon’s Challenge” on ethical and psychological egoism. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates raises the issue of whether goodness and virtue are truly worthwhile for the individual. In Gyges’ Ring, Socrates presents a story where a man named Glaucon discovers a ring, which makes him invisible. In it, he poses the question of whether we would act justly, despite the fact that we could get away with immoral conduct. In essence, he asks whether we should live a life of virtue. Next he asks us to imagine if two such rings existed, where a virtuous man and rogue each received one of the rings. Glaucon claims that the rogue would naturally use the ring for his own personal pleasure with no moral constraints. As for the moral man, Glaucon suggests that he will act no better than the rogue. He defends this position by claiming that no one has enough will to resist the temptation to do things for their own self-interest. In this argument Glaucon asks why there is any reason for a moral person to act any differently from an immoral person. While his argument appears sound, critics argue that some acts appear to be unselfish in nature. As well, critics arguing for ethical egoism also state that we must desire things other than my own self-interests in order to get self-interests. Therefore, if we derive self-interest from playing soccer, unless we desired, for our own sake, to play soccer, we would not derive some self-interest from playing. However, if our self-interests consist simply in the satisfaction of self-regarding our interests, then human beings are still regarded as psychological egoists. Psychological egoists such as Glaucon claim their points using two arguments. The first being simply that the life of an unjust person is much better than the life of a just person. The second argument being that for psychological egoism, selfless actions always create self-satisfaction in the moral agent and this produces a pleasant state of consciousness. Therefore, the action performed by the moral agent is really done to create an enjoyable state of consciousness rather than to aid the interests of others. Using such arguments, Glaucon is able to rule out situations such as altruistic behavior or motivation by thoughts of duty alone as proves for ethical egoism.
Second, I will examine Rachels’ essay on ethical and psychological egoism. In his first argument Rachel suggests selfless actions are really just done voluntarily and that the agent is really just doing what they wanted to do. An example used by Rachel would be if Mr. Smith stayed behind to help a friend rather than go on vacation. While this may appear altruistic, what is really happening is that Mr. Smith wanted to stay behind to help his friend more than he wanted to go on vacation. In this way, his action is no longer selfless but rather selfish since he was only doing what he wanted to do. By examining Mr. Smith’s decision from a different view, it is clear that what appears to a voluntary act of kindness is really just an act out of self-interest. His second argument for psychological egoism is that unselfish actions always produce a sense of self-satisfaction for the moral agent. Therefore, any selfless action by the moral agent is only unselfish at a sort of superficial level. Rachel uses a story where Lincoln once expressed this debate in describing the position between ethical and psychological egoism. In this story, Lincoln and a fellow passenger are discussing how all men are prompted by selfishness in doing any good. As they pass over a bridge in their carriage, both hear a sow yelling for help as her pigs are about to drown. Lincoln then gets out of his carriage and saves the pigs, then returns to his carriage. His companion remarks 1″Abe, where do selfishness come in on this little episode?” Lincoln then replies, “Why bless your soul, that was the very essence of selfishness. I should have no peace of mind all day had I gone and left them.” Lincoln uses the incident with the suffering sow in order to show that his altruistic act was done out of his belief in psychological rather than ethical egoism. Had he not helped the sow, he would have had no peace of mind all day while riding with his companion. Instead, he selfishly saves the pigs in order to help himself. Rachel attempts to refute this claim by stating that it is the object of any action rather than the personal desire that will determine whether an action is unselfish or not. Ethical egoists, on the other hand, argue that even though altruism is possible to act on, there is no reason why anyone should act selflessly. Rachels’ is able to refute this by arguing that no reasons are required in performing actions that help others. However, since all human beings innately do not care about the effects of their actions on others, this argument’s premise is incorrect. Therefore, it is clear that the view of ethical egoism as a moral standard of what people ought to do is clearly incorrect since no matter what situation is produced, the moral agent will always act in their self-interest and that any positive outcomes on others is just a positive consequence.
Thus, no matter what situations are presented to argue that moral beings ought to do what is in their best interests, it has been shown that all moral beings can only act in their own self-interests, even when appearing to act in the interests of others. In conclusion, after examining “Glaucon’s Challenge” from Plato’s Republic and Rachels’ essay on ethical egoism, it is clear that Glaucon was correct in stating that there is no reason for man to be moral.
1 Gendler, T., Siegel, S., & Cahn, S. M. (2008). Egoism and Moral Skepticism. The Elements of Philosophy: Readings from Past and Present (p. 235). Oxford : Oxford University Press.
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