Egoism In Disguise

Originally posted at Living Within Reason

Epistemic status: moderately certain, but open to being convinced otherwise

tl;dr: any ethical system that relies on ethical intuitions is just egoism that’s given a veneer of objectivity.

Utilitarianism Relies on Moral Intuitions

Most rationalists are utilitarians, so much so that most rationalist writing assumes a utilitarian outlook. In a utilitarian system, whatever is “good” is what maximizes utility. Utility, technically, can be defined as anything, but most utilitarians attempt to maximize the well-being of humans and, to some extent, animals.

I am not a utilitarian. I am an egoist. I believe that the only moral duty that we have is to act in our own self-interest (though generally, it is in our self-interest to act in prosocial ways most of the time). I feel a certain alienation from a lot of rationalist writing because of this difference. However, I have long suspected that most utilitarian thinking is largely the same thing as egoism.

Recently, Ozy of Thing of Things wrote a post that illustrates this point well. Like a lot of rationalist writing, this is addressing an ethical dilemma from a utilitarian framework. Ozy is trying to decide what creatures have a right to life, specifically considering humanely-raised animals, human fetuses, and human babies. From the post:

Imagine that, among very wealthy people, there is a new fad for eating babies. Out baby farmer is an ethical person and he wants to make sure that his babies are farmed as ethically as possible. The babies are produced through artificial wombs; there are no adults who are particularly invested in the babies’ continued life. The babies are slaughtered at one month, well before they have long-term plans and preferences that are thwarted by death. In their one month of life, the babies have the happiest possible baby life: they are picked up immediately whenever they cry, they get lots of delicious milk, they’re held and rocked and sung to, their medical concerns are treated quickly, and they don’t ever have to sit in a poopy diaper. In every way, they live as happy and flourishing a life as a two-week-old baby can. Is the baby farm unethical?
If you’re like me, the answer is a quick “yes.”

Ozy’s main evidence for their conclusion is specifically stated to be their moral intuition, resting on the idea that “I am horrified by the idea of a baby farm. I am not horrified by the idea of a beef cow farm.” Ozy goes on to examine this intuition, weighs it against other moral intuitions, and ultimately concludes that it is correct.

This is not surprising given that the ultimate authority for any consequentialist system is the individual’s moral intuitions (see Part 1). In a utilitarian system, moral intuitions “are the only reason you believe morality exists at all. They are also the standards by which you judge all moral philosophies.” People have many different moral intuitions, and must weigh them against one another when it comes to difficult ethical questions, but at bedrock, moral intuitions are the basis for the entire ethical system.

Moral Intuitions Are Subjective Preferences

From the previously-linked FAQ:

Moral intuitions are people’s basic ideas about morality. Some of them are hard-coded into the design of the human brain. Others are learned at a young age. They manifest as beliefs (“Hurting another person is wrong”), emotions (such as feeling sad whenever I see an innocent person get hurt) and actions (such as trying to avoid hurting another person.)

Notice that nothing in this explanation appeals to anything objective. Arguably, “hard-coded into the design of the human brain” could be seen an objective, but it is also trivial. If I do not share a specific intuition, then tautologically it is not hard-coded into my brain so it cannot be used to resolve a difference of opinion.

Under a egoist worldview, there are still ethics, but they are based on self-interest. What is “good” is merely what I prefer. Human flourishing is good because the idea of human flourishing makes me smile. Kicking puppies is bad because it upsets me. These are not moral rules that can bind anyone else. They are merely my preferences, and to the extent that I want others to conform to my preferences, I must convince or coerce them.

The egoist outlook is entirely consistent with the utilitarian one. Consider the above paragraph, but rewritten to emphasize the subjectivity:

[My] moral intuitions are [my preferences for how the world should be]. Some of them are hard-coded into the design of [my] brain. Others are learned at a young age. They manifest as beliefs (“Hurting another person is wrong”), emotions (such as feeling sad whenever I see an innocent person get hurt) and actions (such as trying to avoid hurting another person.)

The language is changed, but the basic idea is the same. It emphasizes that my moral rules are based entirely on what appeals to me. At its heart, any system that relies on moral intuitions is indistinguishable from egoism.

Why Does This Matter?

In a sense, my conclusion here is rather trivial. Who cares if utilitarian ethics and egoism are largely the same thing? As an egoist, shouldn’t I be happy about this and encourage more people to be utilitarians?

The reason why I would prefer that more people explicitly acknowledge the egoist foundations of their moral theory is that I believe moral judgment of others does great harm to our society. Utilitarianism dresses itself up as objective, and therefore leaves room to decide that other people have moral obligations, and that we are free (or even obligated) to judge and/​or punish them for their moral failings.

Moral judgment of others makes us unlikely to accept that nobody deserves to suffer. If someone behaves immorally, we often feel that it is “justice” to punish that person regardless of the practical effects of the punishments. It leads to outrage culture and is a major impediment to adopting an evidence-based criminal justice system.

If we’re insisting on punishing someone for reasons other than trying to influence (their or others’) future behavior, we are not making the world a better place. We are just being cruel. Nobody deserves to suffer. Even the worse people in the world are just acting according to their brain wiring. By all means, we should punish bad behavior, but we should do it in a way that’s calculated to influence future behavior. We should recognize that, if we truly lived in a just world, everyone, even the worst of us, would have everything they want.

If, instead, we acknowledge that our moral beliefs are merely preferences for how we would like the world to work, we will inflict less useless suffering. If we acknowledge that attempting to force our morality on someone else is inherently coercive, we will use it only in circumstances where we feel that coercion is justified. We will stop punishing people based on the idea of retribution and can instead adopt an evidence-based system that only punishes people if the punishments are reasonably likely to create better future outcomes.

I have a preference for less suffering in the world. If you share that preference, consider adopting an explicitly egoist morality and encouraging others with similar preferences to do the same. We will never tame our most barbaric impulses unless we abandon the idea that we are able to morally judge others.